Christian Curriculum

One-of-a-kind program at Archdiocesan school transforms children’s vision – Catholic Philly


About 16 years ago, Mary’s Immaculate Heart sister Lisa Lettiere was teaching visually impaired students in Delaware – but despite her college education, there were some she just couldn’t reach, especially a teenager. , and she didn’t know why.

“I went to his classroom and he acted like he was totally blind. He was bumping into things, he was not hitting things, he was on the lower intelligence scale, “she said. “He was showing all of these behaviors, but he had an eye report saying there was nothing wrong with his eyes. It was unusual.

Encountering “more and more children” with the same problems, Sister Lisa began to do her homework and soon found that many of her students suffered from a little-known but nonetheless widespread vision disorder: cortical visual impairment (CVI).

Now ranked among the leading causes of visual impairment in children, CVI requires a radically different educational approach from typical pedagogy for people with other sight disorders.

And thanks to a recent grant from the Ambassador’s Fund for Catholic Education, Sister Lisa and her colleagues are providing just that – through a one-of-a-kind program in the Philadelphia area based at the Archdiocesan St. Lucy School. for Children with Visual Deficiencies, next to Holy Innocents Parish in the Juniata Park section of town.

“A kaleidoscope without rhyme or reason”

Unlike other vision disorders in which the eye itself is damaged, CVI results from the brain’s inability to process information gathered by the eye.

Medical events “such as a stroke, seizure, cerebral hemorrhage or brain tumor” can all “damage … the visual pathways to the brain” and result in CVI, said Dr Danielle Heeney, director of special education for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Office for Catholic Education, which operates St. Lucy School (recipient of the annual Catholic Charities Appeal).

In normal vision, light is converted through key parts of the eye – cornea, iris, pupil, lens, and retina – into electrical signals that travel along the optic nerve to the brain, where they are delivered by the occipital lobe in images including sight.

Immaculate Heart of Marie Sister Lisa Lettiere, Principal of St. Lucy School, relies on dark backgrounds and bright colors such as red and yellow to simplify visual input for students with cortical visual impairments. (Gina Christian)

But for people with CVI, the light touching the world around them produces “a kaleidoscope” for no “rhyme or reason,” said Sister Lisa, principal of St. Lucy School. “We pretty much have to teach them how to see – how to look for lines, curves and corners, and find what we call salient features specific to a door, office, or dog. “

Faces are “very difficult” for children with CVI to read, said Stephanie Weinstein, whose son Noah, an eighth-grader in St. Lucia, does not recognize her and the rest of her family by sight. but trusts “someone’s voice or define characteristics like height or color.

Sister Lisa noted that students with CVI do not respond to traditional methods of making educational materials accessible, such as magnification, lighting, or braille translation, a writing system using raised dot patterns read with the fingers.

Instead, CVI pioneers such as Dr Christine Roman-Lantzy – who has specialized in the field for several decades – recommend strategies that simplify the inputs captured by a student’s eyes, so that the brain can analyze information more efficiently.

In her old Delaware classroom, Sister Lisa began by erasing the background on which her teenage student was looking at the documents, covering the table with black cloth and surrounding it with a blackboard.

Against the dark tones, she randomly placed objects in the two most visible colors, red and yellow, and soon her pupil was able to locate and organize them.

“All of a sudden, her whole world came to life,” she said.

‘A game level zone’

With a recent Ambassadorial Fund grant of $ 81,800, Saint Lucia has launched the first year of its full-time CVI instruction program, which the fund has also pledged to underwrite at the same level next year.

The support enabled the school to hire MaryAnne Roberto, a longtime visually impaired instructor who was also specifically accredited for CVI education – a field she entered over a decade ago and for which she is passionate about.

MaryAnne Roberto, full-time certified instructor at St. Lucy’s School for Students with Cortical Visual Impairment (CVI), reformats the course material by modifying existing educational tools such as Google Docs. (Gina Christian)

Roberto makes sure that his students’ curriculum is “not watered down”, but rather “changed”, with the aim of “making the rules of the game as level as possible” so that students have access to teaching materials.

To do this, it uses iPads and readily available online platforms – such as Google Docs, Google Slides, Boom Cards, and “some educational apps” – with “specific adaptations” designed “very intentionally” to better serve students. students with CVI.

For Noah Weinstein, Roberto created a Google Docs template that changed the default white background to a black one, made the font bigger, and doubled the line spacing. With these changes in place, she regularly scans the program material – “sciences, human sciences, algebra” – and drops it into the model, making it compatible with CVI.

Adapting lesson plans for CVI-based learning can be time-consuming, said Roberto and Sister Lisa, and most intermediate units (IUs) – regional education service agencies that supplement the resources of the public and private schools – not designed for this task, as their visually impaired teachers have to travel to multiple sites on tight schedules.

Reformatting instructional materials for students with cortical visual impairment (CVI) can take hours, said MaryAnne Roberto, CVI Certified Instructor. (Gina Christian)

“When I worked for an UI, I had 40 students on my workload in 13 different buildings,” Sister Lisa said.

Dedicated programs like the one in Saint Lucia, as well as initiatives to raise awareness about CVI as widely as possible, are badly needed, said Sister Lisa and Roberto – especially since the disease is often undetected or misdiagnosed repeatedly.

Stephanie Weinstein described her son’s diagnostic journey as “complicated, with a lot of missteps,” while St. Lucy’s relative Kristen Garrison said she hadn’t found out her daughter Kennedy had CVI before. almost five years after her child had a birth stroke.

Because they can become anxious, overwhelmed, and withdrawn in their struggle to interpret confusing visual data, children with CVI are often mistakenly viewed as having autism spectrum disorder, learning disabilities, or blood deficit disorder. attention with hyperactivity (ADHD).

“Shared behaviors are not shared diagnoses,” said Roman-Lantzy, who, along with his colleagues, urges doctors and families to test children for common CVI markers, such as the inability to recognize faces and difficulty finding theirs, a tendency to look at the lights. while noticing red and yellow more than other colors, and a decrease in the ability to maintain a sustained look.

Recognize the world around them

And although CVI is not curable, Roman-Lantzy said children with the condition can improve their vision with appropriate intervention.

“I measured children with CVI and started to see trends of undeniable progress sequentially,” she said.

Garrison said the St. Lucia program has helped her daughter become “so much better at recognizing” the world around her, including her mother’s face.

“The progress students make when they receive CVI-focused support is incredible,” said Dr. Heeney.

This impact extends far beyond the classroom, opening doors in all areas of children’s lives. Kennedy is expected to receive his first Sacrament of Reconciliation and Holy Communion this year, while Noah has just celebrated his bar mitzvah, even creating a video called “How I See” for his prep project and drawing on over 200 slides on his iPad. read the obligatory passage from the Torah in Hebrew during the ceremony.

With greater confidence in their abilities, the two students also enjoy their well-deserved free time. Kennedy said she was thrilled to step into her new Nintendo console, while Noah plays the piano, composes music, and makes puns with an enlightening mind.

“I like to throw a few jokes in the middle of the conversation,” he said with a smile, before rushing off to his next class.

Kennedy Garrison uses a black mobile desk surface and brightly colored discs during a lesson in the CVI Resource Room at St. Lucy School for Visually Impaired Children. (Gina Christian)