Fairfield boy finalist at National Braille Challenge

FAIRFIELD — A Fairfield boy was a finalist this summer at the National Braille Challenge in California.

Khanh Tran, who just completed second grade at Pence Elementary School in Fairfield, competed at the National Braille Challenge June 24-26 at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Khanh earned the honor after advancing from the Iowa/Regional Braille Challenge held in the spring.

This was the first time since the start of the pandemic that the national competition was held in-person. The event is designed to motivate students to hone and practice their Braille literacy skills that involve reading comprehension, spelling, speed and accuracy, proofreading, and charts and graphs. The top 10 scorers in each category are finalists, and Khanh was one of them. More than 800 visually impaired children from the United States, United Kingdom and Canada compete in this challenge, and only 50 are selected for nationals, putting Khanh in elite company.

Christina Freeman, Khanh’s teacher with the Iowa Educational Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, said “Khanh is a student who took to reading like a duck to water,” according to a news release on the organization’s website at iesbvi.org.

“He enjoys challenging himself and is always up for learning something new,” Freeman said. “He looked forward to going to Los Angeles to make new friends. I am very proud of him and all of his accomplishments.”

Khanh was born able to see, but developed glaucoma that left him blind in one eye by the time he was 2, and blind in both eyes a year later.

He and his parents, father Bao and mother Chau, are from Vietnam. The family moved to Fairfield when Khanh was in kindergarten so that Bao could attend Maharishi International University. Khanh speaks to his parents in his native Vietnamese, and at school he has learned to communicate with his teachers and classmates in English. He’s also taking lessons in Spanish with Maria Jimenez, his teacher associate who began working with him in first grade.

Freeman has been working with Khanh to read Braille. She collaborated with Khanh’s second grade teacher at Pence Elementary School, Rachel Meyers, to ensure Khanh could understand the material Meyers was teaching to the rest of the class. This involved introducing symbols for math or reading to Khanh that Meyers was about to cover in her lessons.

“Every lesson that I taught, I had to make sure all materials were tactile and accessible for him,” Meyers said. “There were so many great resources available to check out for classroom use by Khanh.”

Meyers said Khanh used embossed rulers, tactile globes, children's literature, tactile images, and audio described videos to help him learn. Meyers made sure to find objects to give to Khanh so he could touch them and follow along.

“This year, we did a science lesson about birds it referenced different bird feeders,” Meyers said. “I gathered bird feeders to bring into the classroom for him to be able to feel. Any lesson that showed pictures of items, I tried to find the item to bring into the classroom. This allowed Khanh to feel it and understand what is being shown in the picture.”

When Meyers read aloud to the class, she described each picture after reading the text on the page. For his assignments, Khanh used a Braille Writer and Braille Sense. Meyers connected his Braille Sense to the computer, so that when Khanh typed something in Braille on the machine, it would show up in English on the computer monitor, so Meyers could give him immediate feedback on his answer.

Meyers said that, at the beginning of the year, Khanh's teacher of the visually impaired and his orientation movement specialist came to the classroom. They spent time teaching the class the safe and helpful ways to assist visually impaired individuals.

“After this lesson, our class was prepared to help Khanh,” Meyers said. “Khanh always made sure he found a classmate to partner up with for PE and recess time. In the classroom, Khanh would ask students near him for help and our class was great to help Khanh when he needed it.”

Carol Dorothy, Khanh’s one-on-one associate at the school, said he especially enjoys music class.

“I will stand behind him and guide his hands when they do motions with the music,” Dorothy said. “Khanh is a very positive person who loves to learn. I am very happy I got to work with Khanh last year, and am looking forward to third grade.”

Hannah Baker is Khanh’s special education teacher at Pence. She described him as “such an inquisitive and kind child.”

“He is so full of wonder and loves to learn and discover new things,” Baker said. “He is caring and truly never forgets anything about the people he meets. He is all boy at times, but a great friend to students and staff. He really puts a smile on our faces every day.”

Call Andy Hallman at 641-575-0135 or email him at andy.hallman@southeastiowaunion.com