Victory in sight

Tucked away inside a cornered room at the Catawba Rosenwald School, a handful of students are testing in silence. It’s almost quiet.

Skyler Jarvis slides the tips of his fingers along a clean sheet of Braille paper and moves down the page, line by line.

He is reading a story as part of a Braille Challenge, a national literacy competition that attracts hundreds of visually impaired students to qualifying centers across the nation each year. The N.C. Western Region qualifier was held in Catawba on Friday.

“Hmm.” Jarvis moves his fingers along a reading comprehension question.

He tilts his head up and starts punching a multiple-choice answer into his Braille writer, one of many around the room.

He and two other “competitors” in the “Freshman Division” score well.

“I feel like I’m a winner,” Jarvis tells his family after the contest.

“I finished the reading comprehension before everyone else, and I just sat there and tried, tried and tried.”

In another room at Rosenwald School, the “Junior Varsity” division is not so quiet.

Noah Davis and another competitor are banging away at their Braille writers. The sound stems memories of 100 women writing war letters in a 1940s movie scene. It’s thunderous.

Davis and his competitors are just practicing, but by the end of the day, they score well, too.

“The proofreading is the hardest,” Davis says afterward. “I probably did the best in the speed/accuracy portion.”

The challenge is like a standardized test, and includes Braille literacy contests for spelling, reading comprehension, speed/accuracy, proofreading and mathematics.

The Western North Carolina Braille Challenge is actually the first step on the road to the national competition, which is held in June at Braille Institute’s headquarters in Los Angeles. Students hope to qualify for one of 60 spots available in the national competition.

The top scorers in the preliminary round will advance to nationals and get the opportunity to represent North Carolina, as they compete against the top visually impaired students from across the United States and Canada.

Davis, who has participated in the challenge the past four years, is from Concord. In fact, most of the competitors come from other counties, including Burke, Gaston, Alexander, Stanley, Cabarrus, Cleveland, Buncombe and Mecklenburg. This year one participant, Preston Harris, is from Catawba County.

Beyond the competition, the challenge invites a camaraderie and friendship between the visually impaired students that are often the minority at school.

“I actually made a friend here the second time I participated,” Davis says. “I get to see her each year.”

After the competition, the participants, their families and instructors eat lunch. There are door prizes for everyone.

“It is so rewarding to see the growth they make from one year to the next,” said Penny Dagenhart, an assistant for the visually impaired program at the Catawba Rosenwald Education Center. “It’s so good for the kids to interact with other visually impaired kids. They are spread out in other schools usually, but they don’t get to see each other.”