While 8-year-old Ciara Peterson took the time to beef up her Braille skills in preparation for the National Braille Challenge, the soon-to-be third-grader didn’t expect to get very far.

Despite failing to make it past the preliminary challenge last year, the Senita Valley student took first place in the apprentice category for first- and second-graders.

An animal lover who enjoys swimming and jumping on the trampoline, Peterson practiced for the competition by studying tests from previous years.

“It wasn’t really hard for me,” she said. “I felt happy for myself, but also for the others.”

Also representing Tucson at the national competition was 10-year-old Joey Parra, earning second place in the freshman category for third- and fourth-graders.

“I just wasn’t sure if I was going to be good enough to make it to the finals,” Parra said.

However, Parra, who will skip the fifth grade and start sixth grade in the fall, emerged from the national challenge declaring how easy it was, said his mother, Graecina Parra.

Parra’s ability to read Braille has opened up many doors for him, allowing him to learn about two of his favorite subjects — time travel and ancient Egypt.

Peterson, Parra and more than 1,000 students across North America competed in primary challenges to determine the top 60 finalists who would advance to the national level.

While Peterson and Parra have proven their proficiency in Braille, only 10 to 20 percent of blind children in grades K-12 currently read Braille — a small number compared to years ago when any child with significant sight loss learned Braille because they were taught at a school for the blind, said Nancy Niebrugge, director of the Braille Challenge.

Today, students who enroll in mainstream schools receive Braille instruction, but the frequency and quality varies by district and based on state funding, she said.

Parra attends the Arizona Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, but Peterson is submerged in a mainstream classroom in the Vail School District. As a result, Peterson’s family has pushed to ensure that she receive all worksheets and materials in Braille.

“It’s important, because if something happened and no technology was available, how would she adapt? She would need something to tell her what she needs to do and how she needs to do it,” her mother, Kiana Peterson, said.

Added Niebrugge: “Without Braille, a blind child would be asked to learn totally through auditory means. That means they wouldn’t be able to write their own notes, re-read their own materials or process complex information like doing algebra. Imagine doing algebra completely through memory and auditory means. All of those higher-level, critical-thinking functions require literacy, and Braille is literacy.”

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at ahuicochea@azstarnet.com or 573-4175. On Twitter @AlexisHuicochea

Education writer for #ThisIsTucson. Mom of one.