Lighthouse International: Educating Preschool Students for the 21st Century
Lighthouse International, the hundred-year-old organization that is widely regarded as the gold standard in low vision care, held its annual graduation for forty preschool children last June. Dressed in a miniature blue cap and gown, five-year-old Manny was the last to be called forward. Totally blind and walking with a small white cane, Manny received his certificate from Lighthouse CEO Dr. Tara Cortes and was en route to his teachers for a congratulatory hug when a sighted classmate of his spontaneously jumped out of her chair, grabbed his arm, and steered him to his destination, but not before wrapping her arms around him and planting an enormous kiss on his cheek.
“We do a lot of great things at Lighthouse,” reflects Dr. Cortes while recounting this story, “But the school is one of our most inspiring areas.” Serving 55 preschool children in six classrooms (one of which is self-contained for multiply impaired students), Lighthouse International offers the only program of its kind where children with visual impairments work and play alongside sighted children. By mainstreaming visually impaired children with sighted children, “we basically are bringing everyone into the world as one,” explains Cortes, who holds both an R.N. and Ph.D. and was hired as CEO in 2005 after an intensive yearlong search. “When they leave our school, the children who are sighted recognize that everybody’s not just like them, so there’s a diversity piece that I think is very unique for our sighted children; and our children with partial sight learn from the sighted and realize that they’re no different either, and they become one,” concludes Cortes.
Headquartered in a Lighthouse-owned building on East 59th Street, Lighthouse International’s preschool program is, according to parent Ursula Fastovsky, whose sighted three year old, Ethan, has attended since September, “a secret to many on the Upper East Side.” With a 1:3 staff to student ratio, the program offers the same rich curriculum for sighted children as other high quality preschools in the city—reading readiness, independence, socialization, and both fine and gross motor skill development. (There is an enormous gym equipped with tricycles, big balls and slides down the hall from the classrooms.) According to Fastovsky, Ethan is already speaking more clearly than he was a month ago, and “it hasn’t really been apparent to him that there are children who are ‘disabled’ in his class.” Adds principal Gregory Santamoor, who came to Lighthouse in July after spending six years as principal of the Helen Keller Services for the Blind’s Children’s Learning Center, “The children are cognitively the same. Some just have a vision impairment….It doesn’t mean they are less smart or they’re not on the same developmental level.”
For those youngsters with visual impairments in the five regular preschool classes, teachers are able to impart skill development through alternative methods using touch, sound and other senses. A Braille calendar has numbers that can be removed and touched. A weather chart has clouds made out of cotton balls. Alphabetical letters are outlined with pasta, paper clips, and pennies depending on the students’ (and teachers’) ingenuity, and large plastic shapes with Braille lettering can be affixed to felt boards. Like most preschool programs, music is an integral part of the school day, with class songs and listening center tapes woven into the daily curriculum.
In the self-contained classroom, the children, who are two to three years delayed in their development, are beginning the school year by getting to know their school and neighborhood. Each child is making a book, with buttons and pasta representing the 15-floor building and eight classrooms. After an outing to Central Park, the children bring back acorns to put in their books. Because most of the students are nonverbal as well as sight-impaired, teachers make use of a variety of adaptive toys. A voice activation machine allows children to make a request, such as “juice”, to go with their sandwich at lunch hour. The teacher, Sandy, has just tailored a message for one child that says, ‘I’m upset and I want some water.’ “This little girl had no way of expressing her frustration…this is a way for her to do something rather than just cry,” she adds.
One student at a time, Lighthouse International is meeting the burgeoning demand for preschool education of the visually impaired. A morning early intervention program offers both on-site and home-based care for two year olds; an afternoon class is on the drawing boards. The preschool program, which runs from 9:00 – 2:30 five days a week and offers after school care as needed, currently has openings for additional students. In the words of Dr. Cortes, “We need to be sure that the safety net for children with visual impairments is spread widely enough to embrace all children who have vision loss…Many children with severe vision loss don’t get appropriate help. We need to capture those children.”#