Shared Vision

updated 06/15/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/15/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

At the Lighthouse Child Development Center, a preschool set among midtown Manhattan's skyscrapers, it is recess. In the gym 11 eager 4- and 5-year-olds line up for tricycle races. Lulu Kenworthy picks a yellow trike, but rather than speeding away, she waits patiently as her classmate Iliana Mejia takes a few extra seconds to find the pedals with her feet. Then they're off, their friends chanting, "Go Lulu! Go Iliana!" Their teacher Regina D'Ambrosio smiles broadly and observes, "To them this is like any other school."

Except for one significant difference. Here cheering is more than encouragement: Iliana needs the sound of the other kids' voices to help her estimate the distance to the finish line. Iliana is visually impaired, as are half of the 70 students in Lighthouse's integrated program, which began in 1995 and is believed to be the first preschool in the country to teach blind and sighted children together.

"It's a buddy system, and both groups benefit," says Dr. Tara Cortes, CEO of Lighthouse International, a not-for-profit agency for the visually impaired. "Children with limited or no vision learn they can navigate in a sighted world. And children who are sighted learn, 'Everybody is not just like me, but we do the same things.'"

D'Ambrosio, 24, who leads one of six classes, takes care to make activities accessible to all. For story time she'll add fake fur to the animals in picture books. She also fashioned a chart that uses objects rather than pictures so students can pick their jobs for the day: Rice Krispies identify the snack helper, and cotton-ball "clouds" the weather helper. And sometimes routine actions take on special significance here. "In most preschools you're probably supposed to push in your chair," she says. "Here 'push in your chair' is emphasized so your friends who don't see well don't trip. Students learn that helping others feels good."

In turn the students who have poor vision discover they can keep up with anyone else. At recess Iliana chases—and tags—sighted pal Elliot Horn by following the sound of his voice and footsteps. "Iliana is so independent now," says her mom, Ana Rodriguez. Even at the city park, "she jumps right in and plays with other kids."

The most severely impaired students will graduate to schools for special needs or the blind. Many others will go on to local public schools, where they're likely to be one of only a few disabled children. But for all, the time at Lighthouse represents a unique start to their education. Here, says Mark Richert, director of public policy for the American Foundation for the Blind, "kids stand out for reasons other than their disability. It tries to be a happy medium between letting kids be with others who are like them and living in a sighted world."

The school now has a waiting list for admission, but some parents were initially wary of enrolling children who were not blind. "I was concerned that Lulu might be dragged down, that she might not excel the way she would at another school," Rocky Kenworthy says of his daughter. "But it's been just the opposite."

Despite its success, the Lighthouse program hasn't been widely duplicated, though there is a similar program in Lancaster, Pa. "There are two schools of thought," says Cortes, "those that believe that the blind and visually impaired need to go to separate schools to get the services they need and those that believe in integration [in mainstream schools]." But as word spreads about Lighthouse's unusual balance, she believes more will be established.

Ivory Elleyby wishes there had been a program like it when she was her daughter Tammy's age. Both have survived childhood retinoblastoma, a cancer that left Ivory legally blind and Tammy with reduced sight. "As my vision got worse, kids who used to play with me started running away from me," Elleyby recalls. "As a child, I didn't understand." But Tammy hasn't faced that kind of cruelty. "Right now all she has to worry about is being a little girl."

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