KANNAPOLIS — When Dylan McCleary walked into Stephanie Jordan’s class for the first time, he found his name written in braille at his desk.
After further exploration of the first-grade classroom at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School, he discovered the names of his classmates were also typed out in braille and placed on desks throughout the room.
When Jordan received word Dylan, who was born completely blind, would be part of her class, she immediately went to work looking for ways to welcome him.
“When I found out Dylan was coming to my class, I remember going to my classroom and looking at everything that we do and thinking, ‘You need eyes for this, how am I going to make this work?’ ” she said. “We kind of went into panic mode because we were trying to gather materials and get things ready.”
Jordan said she spent a few days before Dylan’s arrival talking to her class about what it means to be blind.
“I was trying prepare my class because it was something that was completely foreign to them,” she said. “I told them ‘He’s going to do things a little different than we might do them, but he’s really just like you.’ ”
Although there are students throughout the Kannapolis City school system with visual impairments, Dylan was the district’s first totally blind student in at least a decade.
“Last year there was definitely a big learning curve and adjustment period,” Jordan said.
But Dylan’s mother, Rhedonna Black, said there were never any signs the school was unprepared for her son’s arrival.
“They have always just been really awesome, they have gone above and beyond,” she said. “They’ve made him feel like he’s not different than any other student.”
Jordan said it’s been a team effort to make sure Dylan has everything he needs to be a successful student.
“Everyone has really come together to make it a smooth transition for Dylan,” she said.
During his first year at the school, teachers worked with school system administrators to order a braille writer for him to use at school and home.
The contraption, which looks like a typewriter with just a few keys, allows Dylan to type his work in braille.
Teachers can use it to create worksheets and spelling lists for him to use during class and at home.
Black said officials at the school Dylan attended before moving to Kannapolis said a braille writer would be too expensive and never took the steps to order one.
“That’s what he needs to learn, so I’m glad they’ve made sure he has it,” she said.
Dylan’s exceptional children’s teacher Lisa Strahan and one-on-one teacher Heather Knight have both learned how to read braille through classes at the Hadley School for the Blind.
“Last year was a whirlwind,” Strahan said. “He was teaching us, so my challenge was to get ahead of him so that I could teach him.”
Sandy Summerlin, Dylan’s second-grade teacher, said she’s grateful to have such a solid foundation to start with.
“I’m more prepared this year because of what Mrs. Jordan did last year helping get him acclimated to the school,” she said.
Summerlin said she’s struggled with explaining things like nature to Dylan.
“He doesn’t know what a blue sky is,” she said. “Most students who are visually impaired have some memory reference, but he’s never seen the sky. We have to keep that in the back of our minds.”
That’s where Knight comes in, Summerlin said.
“She does a wonderful job of putting it into context for him,” she said.
The school has ordered books and a math table that Dylan can read using his fingers to scan the braille.
But supporting Dylan goes beyond academics, Jordan said.
“Mobility was a huge thing because this is not an easy building to navigate,” she said. “We were also working on his social skills.”
Black said Dylan has made amazing progress since being at the school.
“His reading skills are so much better,” she said. “And now you can actually have a conversation with him.
“He’s just a lot more independent overall.”
Dylan can easily move throughout the building, going to the cafeteria and the bathroom without a guide.
Knight said Dylan is even comfortable on the playground, going down slides with his peers.
“He’s really come out of his shell,” she said.
Summerlin said being Dylan’s teacher is more rewarding than challenging.
“He’s got such a good attitude for learning,” she said. “He’s just an awesome little boy.”
Ending up at Woodrow Wilson has been a blessing for Black’s family.
“You can tell Dylan loves everyone here. He feels comfortable here,” she said. “That means everything.”
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.
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