Blind student navigates middle school alongside rest of student body.
Brandon Cox begins most days by using his cane to maneuver to a small, quiet conference room, tucked away at the end of a Braden River Middle School hallway.
In Room 210, his longtime teacher, Sandy Hoffmann, waits.
It is the eighth-grader's routine to remind Hoffmann to take attendance, even though he is the only student in the class.
"You always forget," Cox said to Hoffmann. "I tell you every day."
"I know, Brandon," she replied, with a grin. "What would I do without you?"
Cox, who is 13, is one of 76 visually impaired students in the Manatee County School District and the only blind student at Braden River Middle School. Hoffmann, who works for the district, has worked with him since he was a 3-year-old, pre-kindergarten student at Freedom Elementary School in 2006.
These days, Cox only has a brief meeting with Hoffmann, who checks his homework churned out on a Brailler. She also chats with him about life before releasing him to spend the rest of the school day alongside the other students.
Although difficult at times, Cox has worked himself into a comfort zone because his surroundings are familiar. That will change soon when he becomes a freshman at Lakewood Ranch High School Aug. 10.
Once again, Hoffmann will follow Cox to a new school, but he has to navigate most of the school day by himself. Because Cox is enrolled in regular classes alongside his peers who aren't visually impaired, he sometimes struggles to keep up.
Her best advice to Cox is to speak up when he is having difficulty. He has gotten better about advocating for himself at Braden River Middle School.
"Sometimes it seems like my math teacher is talking really fast," Cox said. "And I have to type everything out on this hunk of metal (Brailler) and it can be loud and slow."
Hoffmann, who is paid by the school district, has been teaching Cox how to type short hand on the Brailler, so he doesn't have to type out each letter of every word.
"He has struggled with that, but they're working on it," said Brandon's mom, Anita Cox. "We want to get him an electronic Braille writer (for high school), but I hear they break down and are expensive. I think it would make him more motivated to learn."
Learning also can be more difficult if Cox can't blend with his surroundings. After three years of learning the layout of his middle school, Cox is faced with the challenge of navigating a high school that boasts a student count of nearly 2,400.
That's more than double the population at his middle school.
"I know where everything is here," Cox said of Braden River Middle. "Now I have to learn a whole new school, a bigger school."
Cox will work on his mobility skills each morning with Hoffmann and will use his cane while walking around the campus to learn its sounds of different areas of the campus.
Anita Cox is concerned about other aspects of the high school experience her son will face next school year.
"I wonder if he will be socially accepted," she said. "He has a few people now who look out for him and he has a few friends, but there are days when he comes home and says, 'I had to sit by myself at lunch today,' or, 'Someone moved my lunchbox and I couldn't find it.' He has been pushed down the stairs before.
"Some kids can be so mean."
It's a system that is imperfect for all students.
"Visually impaired students are getting the same curriculum as the rest of their peers," said Wylene Herring-Cayasso, director of exceptional student education, student services, alternative programs and drop out prevention for the Manatee County School District.. "They get to be with everyone else. The goal is to not remove them from the classroom. You see blind or low vision adults traversing the world. As students, they don’t have to go to a school for the deaf and blind; it's not like that anymore."
Cayasso, who attended elementary school in the 1960s, doesn't remember seeing visually impaired students in class.
"They just weren't around with the rest of students," Cayasso said.
Now schools are more prepared. All of Cox's teachers have standard Braillers available for Cox, so he doesn't have to carry the equipment, his backpack and his cane to each class.
Visually impaired students aren't required to meet with a vision teacher, but Cox meets with Hoffmann because he has no vision in either eye, a condition with which he was born.
"It came as a shock to us when Brandon was born blind, because no one else in our family is visually impaired," Anita Cox said. "When he was born, the doctor said, 'He’s healthy, but we’re having trouble finding his eyes.'"
One eyelid was fused together and the cornea never developed. And no optic nerves developed in either eye.
"But it hasn't slowed him down," Anita Cox said. "He maintains As and Bs. Sandy has taught him everything he knows about Braille."
After Hoffmann meets with Cox each morning, she heads to other schools. She works with 21 visually impaired students countywide.
She does have a soft spot for Brandon Cox, though.
"I remember the first time I met Brandon," Hoffmann said with tears in her eyes. "He was an itty, bitty, little guy, who came in with his mom and dad to meet with me. Seeing him walk in after summer break, taller, more mature and with a deeper voice makes me feel old. He's becoming more independent, which is great."
Hoffmann introduced Cox to Braille when he was just 3 years old. By kindergarten, he was able to read and write the letters of the alphabet.
"He uses his Brailler as his pencil and paper," Hoffmann said. "Ninety percent of my job is to make sure my students are able to do what their peers are doing."
Thinking about his transition to high school, she believes Cox will become accustomed to the layout and classmates at Lakewood Ranch.
In the interim, she's there to help.
"He gets me and I get him," Hoffmann said. "We're a team."