On a warm summer morning, two children gleefully whiz back and forth on swings while another boy laughs as he scoots down the slide. It could be any playground at any school in the country. But this playground is at Concordia Learning Center, St. Joseph’s School for the Blind, the only school in the state that serves children who are blind and have other disabilities.
The swings have large bucket-like seats and safety straps. A wide ramp for wheelchairs leads to the jungle gym. Nearby is a sensory garden with a small maze of plants chosen specifically because they have fuzzy or rough textures.
But in the most important ways, the playground is just like playgrounds everywhere.
“The kids, they have a lot of fun,” says Principal Joseph Gugliemella as he looks on.
The school, on Summit Avenue, is relatively new, opening in early 2007. But the program, founded by the sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, has been educating blind and disabled children in New Jersey since 1891, when the school was located on Baldwin Avenue.
“We try to teach our students as much as we can so they can be independent and achieve things when they are out on their own,” says Ed Lucas, the school’s director of development and an alumnus of the program. Lucas attended the school in the 1950s, having lost his sight when he was hit in the face with a baseball.
Only a fraction of blind and disabled children in New Jersey attend a facility like Concordia. Most are educated in their home school districts. The group Parents of Blind Children in New Jersey estimates there are about 2,800 children in the state with some kind of visual impairment. About two thirds of them have an additional disability.
About 66 students are currently enrolled at Concordia, ranging in age from 3 to 21. Most come from nearby, but some come from as far as Morris or Monmouth counties. To be admitted, students must be evaluated in their home districts. If the district determines that Concordia is the best place to educate the child, then the home district pays the tuition.
At the school, students learn according to their abilities. Some are eventually mainstreamed back into traditional classrooms. Many are severely disabled and focus mostly on life skills. Students receive occupational therapy to learn how to eat with silverware and physical therapy to navigate the world.
“Many of our kids are limited in certain things they can do, but we try to teach them as much as possible,” Lucas says.
A physical therapist guides a young girl with a cane down the wide, brightly lit hallway. In a nearby classroom, a boy pecks away at a Braille machine while a girl uses a computer that enlarges text for children with limited vision. In another classroom a device translates written English into Braille.
In many ways, the classrooms are like traditional classrooms. There are cubbies with cartoon- character backpacks. There are blocks and balls and bins of toys. But in other ways the classrooms, like the playground, are very different. Many rooms have specially designed lights that can angle light either from above or the sides. Some students with limited vision can see better with one or the other. The flooring has a pattern on it; single-color flooring makes it difficult for those with limited vision to navigate.
Robert Sensale’s daughter Angela has been attending the school for 15 years. She is one of the school’s residential students, living at the school during the week. Sensale and his wife Claudia adopted Angela from Korea when she was about 14 months old, knowing she would be blind because she was born without eyes. Once they came home, they realized she was also developmentally delayed. At age 20 now, she has the intellect of about a two-and-a-half year old.
The school has taught Angela how to get around the school and her home, eat with utensils, communicate her basic needs, and care for herself.
“It is absolutely an amazing place,” says Sensale. “For an outsider the accomplishments may not seem like a lot, but if you have a child with special needs, these are extraordinary milestones.”
Beyond the basics, Sensale says the school has given Angela an even greater gift.
“One thing that can never be overlooked is that she is treated with all the grace and dignity that a human being deserves.” JCM