Editor’s note: This story was updated at 3:45 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, to correct some information.
Days before students were set to return for the first day of school, the walls of Diana Garcia-Mejia’s pre-kindergarten classroom at Brookhaven Elementary School remained bare.
Missing were the posters with brightly colored reminders about the order of the alphabet and the bulletin boards with inspirational messages that adorned the walls of neighboring classrooms.
In Garcia-Mejia’s room, there are no toy bins and there is no clutter.
Colors are neutral, like the deep navy rug in the center of the room where story time is held, and there are few busy patterns.
It’s all intentional — Garcia-Mejia’s students won’t be able to see the wall decorations, or if they can, the room would feel “cluttered” and likely be more confusing than helpful.
That’s because Garcia-Mejia teaches a class dedicated to prekindergarten students who are blind or have visual impairments. It’s the only class of its kind offered by Montgomery County Public Schools and the only one in Maryland public schools, aside from those offered at the Maryland School for the Blind in Baltimore.
Not every preschooler with limited vision is enrolled in Garcia-Mejia’s class. MCPS staff members work with families of kids ages 3 to 5 to determine if it’s a good fit, based on the student’s individualized education plan and if the student has other specialized needs that might be best be met by other programs, Garcia-Mejia said.
Unlike many other preschool programs throughout the county that operate on a half-day schedule, her class runs for full days.
While most MCPS students returned for the first day of classes on Monday, pre-kindergarten starts a week later, on Sept. 6.
After preschool, most of Garcia-Mejia’s students are enrolled in general education classes and receive what are called “itinerant services,” meaning they have one-on-one assistance from staff members, as needed.
Garcia-Mejia’s students have varying degrees of blindness — some have partial vision and can see clearly through very narrow tunnels or have extremely blurred eyesight. Others see nothing and cannot even sense when it is light or dark. She’s starting this year with five students, but said she’s had as many as nine students at a time.
In her classroom, Garcia-Mejia creates a tiny community of children with similar needs. They receive specialized instruction, including learning braille — the code used by visually impaired people to read and write — and learn how to adapt to the world around them.
Other teachers at Brookhaven have embraced Garcia-Mejia’s students, learning how to adapt their own lessons — from physical education to art — to make them accessible to the students, too.
“They’ve received us with wide open arms,” Garcia-Mejia said in a recent interview, pausing to compose herself as she started to cry. “It’s incredible. What that means for these kids — it’s everything.”
The work isn’t intuitive — it takes time and effort, and some trial and error, she said. But over the years, the teachers and staff throughout the school have bought into the program. For example, Chris Ewing, the physical education teacher, says he knows that putting bells inside the balls he uses helps Garcia-Mejia’s students track them if they can’t see.
Music teacher Michalina Fulmore says she is more intentional about letting the students know where to find the equipment in her room, and letting them hold and handle instruments.
And art teacher Amanda Wilburn knows to put textures such as sand or shaving cream into paint so each color feels different to the students.
“Truthfully, they have redefined what art is about for me,” Wilburn said. “… Every week, they teach me something new that changes my practice and shapes the way I teach.”
‘Where I feel like I’m meant to be’
A 2013 graduate of Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, less than 5 miles from Brookhaven, Garcia-Mejia in 2018 was named the Distinguished Educator of Blind Children by the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland. It was during her first year of teaching.
She took over the class at Brookhaven in 2017, the year after the program relocated there from Rock View Elementary in Kensington.
“This really is my dream job, and this is where I feel like I’m meant to be,” she said.
In high school at Einstein, Garcia-Mejia became friends with three other students — David Amaya, Bobby Holland and Erin Daring — who are all visually impaired (Garcia-Mejia is not). Those friendships inspired her to get a degree in visual disabilities education, and then her master’s in curriculum and instruction in visual disabilities with a specialization in early childhood special education, she said. Both degrees were from Florida State University.
She wanted to teach preschool specifically because she often heard her friends lament that there were so many skills they wished they would have learned earlier in their education, like how to read and write braille.
It’s also “the most powerful age group that I can empower and help parents through that grief process that happens when you have a child” who has a visual impairment, Garcia-Mejia said.
Garcia-Mejia’s classroom is designed for visually impaired children — down to the smallest details.
Each cubbie in a wooden shelf holds one toy, device or book. That helps the students find what they’re looking for more easily, or even memorize where those items are located.
On one shelf, there are buckets of different toys and objects. Each bucket has an example of the object mounted on the outside so the students can feel it and know if it’s what they’re looking for.
The few signs or posters on the walls are written in braille and are posted at heights the students can reach.
Often, Garcia-Mejia is the one who makes the braille materials she uses for lessons and activities and she says that doing so can take hours. She also spends extra time to adapt picture books for her students to use. Sometimes, the books will have elaborate illustrations with a lot of detail. Garcia-Mejia often spends her planning time recreating the pictures, removing complicated backgrounds and leaving only the most basic details. Doing so makes it easier for the students who have limited vision to understand what’s happening, Garcia-Mejia said.
She also frequently incorporates props and uses verbal descriptions that the students may be able to relate to. Maybe she’ll explain that something is smaller than they are, or bigger than a refrigerator.
“I once had a student who asked how airplanes don’t fly into walls because he thought walls just went up forever. He hadn’t seen it, so he didn’t know ceilings exist,” Garcia-Mejia said. “That’s why using objects and explaining is so important. There are so many things other children learn by seeing, or by seeing other people do and imitating. My students don’t have that ability.”
Fnu Pradyumna said his son was in Garcia-Mejia’s class for about 18 months after he was diagnosed at age 2 with a condition that leads to progressive vision loss.
In class, Garcia-Mejia and her two paraprofessionals, Jackie Davis and Marcello Beatley, helped the boy learn to use his hands to identify objects, sizes and shapes, a critical skill for people with visual impairments. They taught him braille, and when his mother showed an interest, Garcia-Mejia set aside time to also help her learn it as well. Garcia-Mejia assigned the mother “homework,” which she spent hours doing. Garcia-Mejia then graded it and provided feedback. Now, the mom is proud of her ability to relate to her son and often uses braille in their home, Garcia-Mejia said.
“She did all of this with the mindset of helping her students and their families — far beyond her duty day at the school,” Pradyumna said of Garcia-Mejia. “Visual impairment in children is emotionally very hard on children and their families. It is people like Diana who are like the light at the end of the tunnel for such families. It is after working with her that we realized that our son is in safe hands and that he, too, can lead an independent life and grow into a successful adult.”
Grief and hope
Preschool is a pivotal time for both the children and their families, Garcia-Mejia said. For the children, it’s important they learn early the skills they need to navigate a world that is often not designed for the visually impaired. Many need to learn braille, and they’re learning basic skills that require adaptations, such as walking with a specialized cane.
Their parents, too, are adjusting to life with a child with disabilities. There’s a grief process and they need support, Garcia-Mejia said.
Years ago, she purchased a set of goggles that simulate the various types of visual impairments that others, such as the students’ parents, could wear to get a sense of what the world looks like for their children.
It’s a useful tool, she said, but wearing the goggles can be an extremely emotional experience, so she always offers to let the families take the goggles home and try them in private, or to try them on with her in her classroom.
While Garcia-Mejia helps parents experience the world as their children do, she also is focused on teaching the students that there’s so much they can accomplish, despite their disability.
She talks to them about blind celebrities — like Erik Weihenmayer, who in 2001 was the first blind person to climb Mount Everest; Christine Ha, who won the third season of the Fox TV show MasterChef; and Molly Burke, an advocate and fashion icon.
She tells them about her friends from high school, who are now in college or have families and careers of their own.
“I want them to know from the start that there’s so much they can do,” she said, “and it’s so much more than what they can’t do.”