By Mike Marsee
Calli Larison’s hat screams fun, but the expression on her face is all business.
The 9-year-old Larison is one of four students in a small classroom that is so quiet you can hear the movement of the second hand on the wall clock. They are taking part in the Kentucky Regional Braille Challenge, an academic competition designed to motivate blind and visually impaired students to emphasize their study of Braille.
Larison is sporting one of the plastic party hats with silver fringe on the back that were handed out for the Braille challenge’s opening ceremony, but she is intently focused on the pages of material and the Braille typewriter before her.
She was one of about 40 students in grades K-12 who competed last week at Kentucky School for the Blind (KSB) in Louisville, where a small army of people worked to make the event fun for students who take the competition seriously. While competitors could win prizes and prestige, some of them were vying for spots in the annual international Braille Challenge this spring in Los Angeles.
“The teachers tell me that the students here talk about this all year,” said Janie Blome, the director of field services for the American Printing House for the Blind (APH), which is located next door to KSB and serves as a co-host of the regional competition. “I think for some of the students, it’s very serious. We have a couple of our students who have had the opportunity to go to Los Angeles as finalists, and I think for those students, it’s really an experience of knowing what you can do and what that experience can be for them.”
Regardless of whether any students qualify for the finals, all of them stand to gain something because the competition helps them learn and refine skills that will be necessary for academic and employment success.
“It certainly recognizes their academic excellence and their really good work in Braille. It also really emphasizes the importance of Braille and of Braille literacy. That was the dream for the Braille Institute, to celebrate Braille and to raise awareness of Braille, and also to show how it opens doors for students who are blind and visually impaired,” Blome said.
Or, as KSB student Jacob Hack said, “It makes you think about Braille.”
The event also serves as an opportunity to bring together blind and visually impaired students from across Kentucky. About half of the students who took part in the Kentucky Regional last week were KSB students, and half attend other schools around the state, where they may not get to interact with other visually impaired students.
“Some of these students may be the only Braille student in that district, in that county, so it’s a chance for the kids to get to know each other and to know that there are other kids who are having the same problems in school that I’m having and to know that they’re having the same successes that I’m having,” Blome said. “It’s a way to build confidence, and when they have success here, that also helps to build the students’ esteem.”
Students are divided into five skill levels and are tested on Braille speed and accuracy, reading speed and comprehension, spelling, proofreading and interpreting tactile graphics and charts and graphs reading.
“It gives us a challenge that we’re not used to,” said Shane Lowe, a KSB student who went on to win the top division. “I want to win, but if someone else does, I won’t be mad.”
Blome said some of them have prepared for their big day with the help of online practice aids.
“They try really hard,” she said. “We encourage them to practice all year. I know some of our students work with their teachers of students with visual impairments and really do spend some time all year practicing and going over the material.”
Larison, who lives in Alexandria and attends Campbell Ridge Elementary School (Campbell County), last year became the second to qualify for the finals since KSB and APH began hosting the Kentucky Regional in 2011. A few Kentucky students had previously competed in a regional in Tennessee.
Larison had the highest score in reading comprehension at last year’s regional, though she said that’s the hardest part of the competition for her and she prefers the proofreading competition. She said she thought her work this year would again put her in contention for a spot at the finals.
“I think I’ve done perfect,” she said with a grin.
Time will tell. Larison won first place in the freshman division, but she won’t know for a while whether she will qualify for the finals. Regional competitions involving more than 1,000 students are being held at 46 sites in the U.S. and Canada throughout the winter, but only the top 12 scorers from each of the five levels advance to the finals June 17-18. Qualifiers will be notified by May 1.
“It was harder work at the finals, and you have to do it fast,” Larison said.
While Larison and the rest of the younger students got to try their hand at playing all sorts of percussion instruments during a demonstration between competitions, a group of more than 25 volunteers worked on the critical task of scoring the students’ work in time for the afternoon awards ceremony. Like Blome, many of them work at APH, which began operations in 1860 in the basement of KSB’s original building.
“Working next door, we still don’t see the kids very often. I think this is one of the things that brings home to me why I love Braille and why I provide Braille to this population,” said scorer Jan Carroll, an APH employee.
Blome said there were about 120 volunteers in all – roughly three for every student. Most come from APH or KSB, and there are some community volunteers as well. They do everything from serving as guides to serving up pizza.
One person who volunteered her time was Danielle Burton, a five-time regional challenge participant who graduated from Elliott County High School in 2013 and now attends Morehead State University. While the students were competing, Burton spoke to their parents and family members about the challenges she has overcome to attend college, and she later addressed the older students in the competition.
“She’s got way more credibility with those kids than we do,” Blome said. “We’re trying to bring some of our alums who have been successful back to tell the students who are competing now, ‘This is what I’ve done, and you can do it, too.’”
The winners in each division received $100, with gift cards in lesser amounts going to the second- and third-place finishers. Lowe, the winner of the top division, and Jenna Claywell, who scored highest in reading comprehension, each won a Book Port Plus media player/recorder.
“The prizes are nice,” Lowe said.
MORE INFO …
Janie Blome firstname.lastname@example.org