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The following article originally appeared June 22, 2004 in the
Los Angeles Daily News.
Frequently, it is assumed that losing sight later in one's career automatically means the inability to continue in the job. Connie Gibson demonstrates that it is not only possible to remain a productive professional but to excel in doing so. Note that losing vision later in life makes some tasks "easier" while, simultaneously, making other tasks more challenging.

Jennifer Radcliffe

VAN NUYS -- Connie Gibson walks her campus without help -- proudly pointing to the murals, rose bushes and playground equipment that she can no longer see. Since diabetes robbed her of most of her sight four years ago, the Lemay Street Elementary School principal relies on her memory to navigate the campus that she's spent a dozen years improving. She reaches out for the doorknob to a brightly decorated kindergarten classroom and, without missing a beat, enters and begins bragging about how these young students are reading and writing at levels that used to be unheard of for 5-year-olds.

"Being independent is such a big thing," says Gibson, 62. "I think probably the hardest thing is asking for help. I was used to doing everything for myself."

Educators say Gibson's resolve and determination have led Lemay to great success, including its designation as a California Distinguished School and a Title 1 Academic Achievement campus earlier this year. "She's taken her school to new heights," local Superintendent Bob Collins said. "All I can do is give her all the praise in the world."

This month, Gibson was named elementary administrator of the year in Los Angeles by the Association of California School Administrators. "I've been very lucky," Gibson said, knocking on her wood desk. "Everything we've touched has just turned to gold."

She attributes much of the success to experience and stability, as many of her teachers and administrators have worked together for more than a decade. And of course, there's also sheer determination, innovation and an ongoing grant-writing campaign, educators said. Lemay Street has playgrounds, art programs, nutrition lessons and a homework club because of an aggressive effort to earn grants.

By next year, a Wonder of Reading grant will convert two classrooms into a much-needed library. Students and educators sold ice cream after school for 10 years to raise the $35,000 in matching money needed to qualify. "That's a lot of money for a little, tiny school," said Gibson, who started as a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District 35 years ago. "But we just have a tradition where if we see something we want, we go after it."

The efforts have paid off. Since Gibson took over at Lemay Street, its Academic Performance Indicator score has more than doubled to 770, and it hopes to pass the state goal of 800 when new scores are released in August. Administrators also plan to apply for a National Blue Ribbon award next year. Those are accomplishments for the 468-student school, where 75 percent of students are English-language learners and more than 60 percent are economically disadvantaged.

"What we're doing is a success story," said Jerilyn Schubert, assistant principal and former teacher. "Because we believe that all kids can learn, that's what's happened."

Schubert said she's continually amazed by Gibson's ability to identify and build on people's strengths. She's helped aides and teachers to become campus leaders.

"She saw things for me that I didn't see for myself," Schubert said.

But watching Gibson lose her vision to Type II diabetes has been tough. Gibson, who is legally blind, relies on friends to drive her to school, co-workers to read to her and colleagues to help her navigate unfamiliar places.

Lemay Street is one of the few places where Gibson can get around on her own.

"Here, she can be independent. She knows where everything is, all the teachers. Some of the younger kids don't even know she can't see," said Jerrie Wickman, the school's administrative assistant.

Because of bleeding behind her eyes, Gibson can only see a few outlines and shapes. She's unable to make out the notes that she's written in a big black marker on a legal pad on her desk.

She relies on her memory of what the world used to look like and hates drawing attention to her disability. "I joke that I know the job so well, I'm doing it blindfolded," she said. "You have to look at what the problem is and then deal with it. You can't say, Why me?"

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