Redwood Falls Gazette
  • Sophia's way with words

  • Sometimes Sophia Panitzke, who has been blind from birth, needs to step outside her third grade classroom at Reede Gray Elementary School because the noise gets to her; as she said last week, “I get distracted sometimes; the sound drives me nuts"....
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  • Sometimes Sophia Panitzke needs to step outside her third grade classroom at Reede Gray Elementary School because the noise gets to her. Sophia, who has been blind from birth, said last week, “Sometimes I want to go someplace else. I get distracted sometimes; the sound drives me nuts.” In all fairness, it does work both ways, Sophia admits. “The Brailler I have to use to write would drive (the other students) nuts, too. It’s really noisy.” Every year the Redwood Falls Rotary Club donates free dictionaries to all the area third graders. This year’s donation was a little different. As the Rotarians were handing out the little paperbacks, Reede Gray Elementary School Principal Steph Flickinger came into Mrs. Bloedow’s classroom carrying a bound book thicker than a Manhattan phone directory. It was for Sophia Panitzke, who has been blind from birth. It was also just one of 14 volumes; the entire dictionary, stacked up, is probably taller than she is. Special Education Teacher Nancy Rebstock said, “When we heard the Rotary Club was going to donate dictionaries to all the third graders, we wanted Sophia to have one, too.” School staff quickly learned a new Braille dictionary would cost between $700-1,000. However, it seems there was another school that just had one lying around.... The Braille dictionary was donated to Reede Gray Elementary School. It will go home with Sophia and remain with her as she continues through the higher grades. “I have tons of Braille books at home, on my top shelf. I like to read,” Sophia said. Her favorite stories? “I like to read chapterbooks, novels,” she said. “Someday I’ll probably like to read mystery books.” She also likes gym class, especially playing basketball in the gym. What would Sophia like to be when she grows up? “A dentist or a doctor or a librarian. I kinda want to be a librarian someday,” she said. According to superintendent Rick Ellingworth, Sophia isn’t the first blind student who’s come through the system. “It’s been absolutely wonderful having Sophia in the district. I love to have Sophia read to me. I”I’ll walk into the room, and she’ll say, ‘Hello, Mr. Ellingworth.’ I don’t know how she does it. She has a strong presence, and is truly a phenomenal student.” Sophia, the daughter of Chad and Lynn Panitzke, currently attends third grade full-time at Reede Gray Elementary School. “Sophia was born with Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis,” said Lynn. “We wanted Sophia to have a Christian education, so for the first few years we split her time between St. John Lutheran School and Reede Gray.” “Sophia started working with early childhood special education starting at 10 months old,” said Lynn Panitzke, Sophia’s mother. Sophia started learning to read and write Braille in kindergarten. Although Sophia spends as much time in Mrs. Bloedow’s classroom as practical, she is pulled out several times a day to practice specific skills, such as learning to get around with a white cane. “She’s expected to get around just like the other kids,” said Lynn. “The cane is great for navigating the hallways, but in the classroom it’s a little too crowded. Usually it’s easier for her to set down the cane and get around with her hands. “The social skills have been harder since she doesn’t get all the visual cues. Lots of times her peers help out, though. She’ll be paired with a buddy, who will take her around by the elbow. “Sometimes Sophia will get frustrated by something that limits her,” continued Lynn. “She’s very independent. She want to do it by herself, and to be included. She knows she’s different, but she doesn’t want to let it stop her.” “Sophia is learning to self-advocate. She’ll say, “I can’t see that, you know!’, and she will let people know when she needs help.” “Sophia’s experiences in school have been great,” said Lynn. “When Sophia started, none of her teachers knew Braille. They’ve gone above and beyond. All her teachers from Early Childhood on have been willing to think outside of the box.” It’s not just the schools; other organizations have found ways to accommodate Sophia. The Redwood Falls Public Library orders Braille books for her, and this summer she plans to take part in swimming lessons and other summer rec activities. As much as possible, the staff at Reede Gray Elementary School try to make Sophia’s experience as close to that of the other students as possible. “At recess, Sophia loves to swing, and she’s pretty good at navigating her way around the playground,” said Lynn. She gets the same worksheets as the other students; however, Sophia’s need to be typed up into Braille sheets by either Rebstock or a para. “Two of our staff members can read and write Braille, and we spend an hour or two each day transcribing worksheets and math problems for Sophia,” said Rebstock. Many textbooks are already in Braille format, available from the state academy for the blind in Faribault. In addition, all required state tests are already available in Braille format. Having a blind student pass through the school system requires thinking ahead, too. “Everything has to be planned at least a year in advance,” said Lynn. “We’re just starting to plan Sophia’s fifth grade even though she’ll be in fourth grade next year.” Middle school staff are already preparing for Sophia starting in 2016, and she’s getting ready for them. “Sophia will be expected to be able to maneuver around the facility just like every other student,” said Ellingworth, noting the district has invested in some Braille signs to mark doorways. “We really need to look ahead and have things in place, to plan for things we can take for granted for the rest of the (students),” said Ellingworth. “We’re very much embracing this kid, and learning as much from her as she is from us. After you meet Sophia, you’re motivated.”
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