Venice High student to compete in Braille Challenge

By Christi Womack | | Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Classmates probably do not realize the girl who maneuvers Venice High School’s halls with a cane is smart, as in super intelligent, and is one of 60 students nationwide gearing up for an academic competition.

Not that Kate Antolak, blind since birth, wants to be noticed. The hardest thing for her is being viewed as different at school. “I try not to dwell on what makes me different when I’m studying,” Kate, a 15­ year ­old freshman, said.

When she received the Golden Eagle Award last week, her father, Johnny, said Kate worried about why she was selected. When she found out who nominated her, Kate’s tension eased.
Each teacher can select one student to receive the award, which is based on educational excellence. If they do not think they have a worthy student, some teachers pass.

Algebra I teacher Mary Chesna said she was apprehensive when Kate was assigned to her class at the beginning of the school year, questioning her ability to teach a blind student.

They were mutually nervous. Math is Kate’s least favorite subject. Both student and teacher learned from each other, with Chesna routinely saying, “Picture this in your head,” or “How can you visualize this?” “I’m very lucky,” Chesna said. “She is such a good student.”

Only 41 students at Venice High received the award. Chesna said it is very difficult for a teacher to pick just one student and write the nomination. “They asked us to write 80 words,” Chesna said. “Mine was 153, and they skewed it down to 120.”

Each student receives a medallion and a copy of what his or her teacher wrote. “She’s a wonderful girl,” Chesna said. “She has gotten more self­confidence this year. I know she’s going to do big things here in the next three years.” Come graduation, Kate can wear the medallion with her cap and gown. For that, she will be a little different from other students, but in a good way.

When Kate travels to Los Angeles in June for the Braille Challenge, she will be around old friends. She has participated in regional competitions every year since third grade and advanced to the national competitions in third, fourth, sixth and eighth grades. Kate knows what she needs to do to be successful on the series of tests, which include speed, accuracy, dictation, transcribing into Braille, and reading graphics like charts, graphs and maps.

Her practice comes daily. She totes around a Braille laptop, which she uses to read books, send and receive emails and connect her phone via Bluetooth. She uses Skype every day for a group chat with a circle of friends made throughout the country, most of them through the Braille Challenge. They call themselves “The Alliance” and have interesting conversations, “smart people stuff,” Kate said.

Her intelligence is a side­effect of Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis, a rare disease that caused Kate’s blindness, her father said. While some people diagnosed with LCA have delayed development, Kate is among those whose intellectual progress excelled.

They are working on social situations. More often than not, she is eating lunch, hiding really, in the office of Brandi McNulty, a teacher of the visually impaired who rotates among 10 Sarasota County schools.

The Antolaks — Kate, her father and 12­year­old brother Talon — moved to Venice in September from St. Augustine. Leaving behind the familiar has been difficult. “I prefer the company of my books, at least during my lunch,” Kate said. Kate is both a voracious reader and a writer. She reads in school and at night on her own. Her favorites are biographies, memoirs and fiction. Go­to authors are J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin, Michael Scott and, especially, Philip Pullman. Kate writes fiction and sci­fi fantasy.

“A new project is a little different, a gangster thing going on,” she said. She loves continuing story lines and is fascinated with dark themes. All of that reading keeps her fingers nimble during the summer.

“That’s the best way to practice, to keep your fingers moving,” she said. McNulty is constantly ordering books for Kate. “She’s a fun, outgoing student,” McNulty said. “I have to stay up to date on all my Braille, making sure I know it. She keeps me on my toes.”

In high school, Kate said her plan is simply to survive, keep writing and reading. College is in her future because she would like to become a published author or teach either creative writing or history.

Next year, history will be her first AP class. “I’m going to drill my teacher on Tudor England,” she said. Kate is eager to celebrate her 16th birthday next year with a family trip to Scotland. The history there? Just amazing, she said. “I’m always looking and listening and trying to learn something when I can,” Kate said.