Belmont Central student competing in braille literacy challenge – Gaston Gazette

A partially-blind student at Belmont Central Elementary School spent last week putting her braille skills to the test in a nationwide competition.

Isla Rose Hightower, a student in Kim Parrish’s second grade class at Belmont Central, was diagnosed with Leber Congenital Amaurosis – a rare eye disorder – at a young age. Her parents first noticed her lack of eye contact when she was 3 months old.

Second grade student Isla Rose Hightower is surrounded by the second grade teachers and principal Phyllis Whitworth at Belmont Central Elementary School Thursday morning, Feb. 25, 2021.

Hightower can still see using her right eye, though she doesn’t see most colors the same as others students. She could be lose her vision completely by her teen years.

Second grade student Isla Rose Hightower poses with a Perkins Brailler as she gets ready for the nationwide braille challenge at Belmont Central Elementary School Thursday morning, Feb. 25, 2021.

“This is one of the very rare cases of Leber. Some are blinder than she is, or have no vision at all,” said Hightower’s mother, Bergen Hightower. Hightower sees her eye specialist, Dr. Timothy Saunders, regularly.

But Hightower, now a 7-year-old beam of positivity, has remained overwhelmingly optimistic over the years, despite her disability and the pandemic. When she’s not practicing braille with her braille teacher, Kara Grimes, she draws in her sketchbook or dances.

“It’s been really neat to see things progress for her and to [see her] do what she does,” Bergen said. “It’s mind-blowing how she picks up [braille], but also picks up everything she needs to know from her classroom.”

Second grade student Isla Rose Hightower uses a Perkins Brailler as she practices for the nationwide braille challenge in a classroom at Belmont Central Elementary School Thursday morning, Feb. 25, 2021.

Feb. 22 marked the first day of a new journey for Hightower. She’s competing in the Braille Challenge, a multi-day competition geared to push students, from kindergarten through grade 12, to practice their braille literacy.

Broken down into regions, hundreds of North Carolina students, who are blind or visually impaired, are competing in a number of different spelling, proofreading and comprehension activities. The students use a Perkins Brailler, or a braille typerwriter, to read and write braille. 

Grimes estimates several thousand students compete each year.

The complexity of some of the words she was asked to read and spell fascinated Hightower.

“I like all of them (challenge), but I liked when they asked me what to spell, and I like when you can find the mistake,” said Hightower.

Hightower, the youngest student in Gaston County Schools to practice braille, has already excelled.

Teacher for the visually impaired, Kara Grimes, works with second grade student Isla Rose Hightower in a classroom at Belmont Central Elementary School Thursday morning, Feb. 25, 2021.

“She did awesome during the proofreading,” said Grimes, who has helped Hightower learn braille since Hightower was 3. “To watch her grow has been amazing. I think the biggest thing this year has been her confidence. She’s come out of her shell and she knows what she is doing.”  

Braille Challenge has been held in person in previous years, but the pandemic has moved the competition all online. Hightower hopes she can compete in 2021 and meet some of her fellow contestants.

When asked what Hightower wants to be when she grows up, she answered “lots of things,” but she specifically hopes to be an artist, dance teacher and braille teacher.

“She’s going to take my job when I retire,” Grimes said. 

Students and staff wore pink – Hightower’s favorite color – to cheer her on. Hightower’s classmates created pink signs ahead of the competition to support her as she enters the final days of the Braille Challenge. 

Hightower will soon learn her results. Following the regional competitions, 50 students from across the United States will move on to the national Braille Challenge. 

You can reach reporter Gavin Stewart at 704-869-1819 or on Twitter @GavinGazette.