Bunched together in matching school shirts, 21 children sang “Over the Rainbow” to Florida bureaucrats, philanthropists and Eva, the guide dog.
Some of the kids were visually impaired, the others sighted.
No matter. They all celebrated the new 72,000-square foot learning center at the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, 601 SW Eighth Ave.
“It’s really a beacon for people that think their lives are over,” Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said. “This is a place to fix lives, to help people, to help children.”
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The Learning Center has been furnished with new technologies, including new computers, tablets and Braille readers in various sizes and shapes.
The Learning Center for Children is a collaboration among many partners, including Miami-Dade County Public Schools, The Children’s Trust and the city of Miami. Construction ended just in time for the new school year.
The center houses the state’s first preschool for visually impaired and sighted students. Begun as a pilot program last year with 15 students, the preschool will accommodate 40 visually impaired and sighted students between ages 1 to 4 starting with the new school year.
“We’re transforming the lives of both sighted children and blind children,” said Lighthouse CEO Virginia Jacko. “Too often are the blind segregated. Too often sighted people don’t understand the blind.”
The program was an idea long in the making, to help prevent kids from forming exclusionary behaviors between the sighted and visually impaired, according to Isabel Chica, Lighthouse’s director of children’s programs.
The program will be a part of a research project between Lighthouse, The Children’s Trust and the University of Miami, Chica said. According to the project’s lead researcher, Dr. Rebecca Shearer, the study will measure the kids’ social and emotional development, their school readiness, as well as the parents’ well-being.
The program’s effects — academically and behaviorally — will be studied for visually impaired and sighted children, with the goal of making this a national model.
Shearer also emphasized the importance of studying the parents and their ability to advocate for their children and help prepare them for kindergarten.
“The outcomes that we’re hoping to see is that they have increased understanding in knowledge and how to support children who are visually impaired,” she said.
The assessments will be short-term, for the school year, and a longitudinal study, conducted over four years.
“I just think it’s a phenomenal opportunity to provide the support and early enrichment that children need, both children and families,” Shearer said.
Jacko mused over the possibilities the new students will have.
While giving the students independence is important, part of the goal involves changing people’s perception of the visually impaired, she said.
Last year, one sighted youngster in the program innocently told his mother, “I don’t know any blind people,” according to Jacko.
Said Jacko: “When a student who’s sighted in this curriculum says to his mother ‘I don’t know any blind children, we’re all the same,’ that says it all.”