A new Center for the Blind preschool in Ocala offers hope for children and parents

By

OCALA, Fla. – For blind students like Ayden Morgan from Ocala, a preschool for early intervention would have made life so much easier — or so his mother Tiffany Henke says.

“I think he would have learned so much more, and it wouldn’t have taken so long,” Henke said of her son, who is now 12. “There were a lot of gaps. It was a lot of me searching and finding and looking for resources and trying to piece everything together for him to make it the best that I could.”

The permitting phase is underway for construction to begin on a new preschool that can help children like Ayden. The school will open in late spring of 2023 in Ocala and is part of the new expansion program of the Florida Center for the Blind. The preschool is funded by a $600,000 grant that was approved by the Marion County Commission in March of 2022 to purchase land. 

Construction is expected to begin next month on land adjacent to the center. The school will eventually include a primary charter school.  It is the first phase of a three-phase project that intends to include a vocational center with dorms and job training facilities, and a youth education center.

While Henke’s son will not benefit from the new preschool, she said the Florida Center for the Blind has filled the gap where the public school system has failed her son. Ayden was 3 years old in 2013 when he was diagnosed with brain cancer, which ultimately left him blind. It was then that his mother turned to the center for aid for her son. 

“The Florida Center for the Blind kind of stepped up during that time between the grades of second and fifth grade and took on the role of his school,” Henke said.

Each school district in Florida is required to use a system called ESE, or Exceptional Student Education, in which blind or partially sighted children learn braille, assistive technology and skills to cope with daily challenges like how to travel safely. 

However, this education is usually at odds with mainstream education of math and writing as children are pulled out of the classroom to learn these skills and fall behind, said Anissa Pieriboni, president and CEO of the Florida Center for the Blind. The preschool will mainly focus on early intervention education to more easily integrate children into the public school system and “remove those barriers” to learning.

“When a child enters the public school system, they most likely don't have the skills that they need, and so they have to receive supplemental instruction,” Pieriboni said. The problem is that students fall behind in core curricula when they are pulled out of class for ESE, she said. 

Currently, the Florida Center for the Blind serves eight counties around the state and often serves as the only point of contact for those with visual impairments. According to Pieriboni, there has been an extreme shortage of licensed professionals who are equipped to work in these facilities. This shortage is not only apparent in this agency, but has been a crisis in agencies nationwide for many years. 

According to the National Federation for the Blind, in 2003, there were approximately 6,700 full-time teachers of blind students serving about 93,600 students. In that same year, the number of new professionals graduating from university programs to work with blind or low-vision students fluctuated between 375 and 416 per year.

Pieriboni said the grant came at the right time to make the expansion process possible and ensure that operations for the Florida Center for the Blind could continue with their existing staff in a centralized agency. 

“Unfortunately, we're all struggling, and so it really was not a viable option for us to split our operation to have to put half of our services somewhere else,” Pieriboni said.

Charles Rich, community development administrator with Marion County Community Services, said he believes the center will be a tremendous asset for the county and the state.

“We’ll be able to keep our infants, children and students here, and it will work on the impediments to travel for the less fortunate,” he said. “It will be less expensive for Marion County residents.”

When Noah Verdun was diagnosed with congenital hereditary endothelial dystrophy (CHED), his mother, Promise Verdun, said she did not know where to turn. Luckily, she found a haven in the Florida Center for the Blind. Now 4 years old, Noah is set to start preschool in the spring of 2023.

“I think the school would be the best thing for him, to be honest with you,” Verdun said. “They're skilled at learning how to work with visually impaired children. I think it'll definitely boost his confidence too because he is around other children like him and sighted children. So, he gets the best of both worlds when it comes to friends.” 

While learning how to deal with a partially sighted child has been a challenge, Verdun said she hopes Noah finds comfort in this new learning environment.

“I'm hoping that he can go to school and not get frustrated because his teacher doesn't understand him,” Verdun said. “I'm hoping that he's able to go and really enjoy it, and at the same time, learn the way I feel he should learn.”

To the relief and excitement of many parents throughout the state, the preschool will serve as a link between their blind or partially sighted child and a sighted world. 

“If there was a place where you can send your kids from birth to death and you know that they're going to be taken care of, I mean, isn't that what anybody would want?” Henke said.

About Taylor Mayer

Taylor is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

Check Also

All clear after bomb squad called to UF’s campus to investigate suspicious package

After a tense three and a half hours, the University of Florida Police Department and the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office Bomb Squad identified the device found at Turlington Hall Thursday as “research material.”