Blind World Magazine

Supporters worry school for the blind will close.

Des Moines Register, Iowa.
Tuesday, March 14, 2006.


Vinton, Ia. - Amber Smith worries she'll be forced to attend school in her hometown if Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School closes.

It's not that her hometown has poor schools, said 15-year-old Amber, who is legally blind and is from Fort Dodge. Rather, she said, she doesn't fit in.

When youngsters in gym played basketball or softball, Amber walked the track. She fell behind in math. Friends were few. "I got bad grades," she said.

Two years ago, Amber began attending Iowa Braille in Vinton. Her grades improved, and she now has several friends, she said. At the Vinton school, Amber can swim, run and play ball.

But Amber fears Iowa Braille will close before she graduates. State education officials are trying to decide how best to spend the nearly $7 million used to educate Iowa's blind and visually impaired students. About $4 million is spent on Iowa Braille and the services provided to its 34 students. The remaining $3 million goes toward services for Iowa's 427 other visually impaired students.

The debate is similar to ones occurring in Washington and Virginia, where education officials are trying to decide how best to serve visually impaired students. Nationally, 41 states have schools for the blind; in 13 of those states, schools for the visually impaired and deaf share facilities.

Enrollment in state institutions such as Iowa Braille began declining nationally after passage of the 1975 federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act. The law ensured that disabled students had the same educational opportunities as their peers and led to more special-needs children - including the blind - attending their neighborhood schools rather than state institutions.

In Iowa, animosity is growing between Iowa Braille supporters and those deciding its fate. Legal action has been threatened if the school closes. Those studying the issue say they want only to equalize services provided to visually impaired students.

"Really annoying"

"They're not thinking about us - all they are thinking about is the money," Amber Smith said. "It's really annoying."

If the 144-year-old school is shuttered, Amber and the school's 33 other students would likely return to their neighborhood schools or other residential facilities. It would also mean the nearly $4 million used to operate Iowa Braille could be spent on hiring more instructors and equipment for the state's 461 visually impaired students.

Blind and visually impaired students who attend their neighborhood schools don't all receive the intense services they need, said Glenn Grove, one of 20 people on a Board of Regents-appointed committee studying how to provide services to Iowa's visually impaired students. Grove also is administrator of the Loess Hills Area Education Agency in western Iowa. The agencies provide educational services to students including those with vision disabilities.

"We need to make those services uniform across the state and provide services students need in a uniform fashion," Grove said. "I don't know that that is happening now, and I don't know if that means closing Iowa Braille. It does mean asking what the role of the Vinton school should be."

Many families with children who are blind prefer that the youngsters attend their neighborhood schools rather than Iowa Braille, a residential facility where students live during the week.

"We want to raise our own child," said Matt Hirschman , whose 10-year-old daughter Marissa has been blind since birth.

Hirschman, who with his family lives in Fort Madison, said the school district has provided Marissa with an aide who does such things as converting worksheets into Braille and explaining classroom assignments.

"We've been real lucky and gotten all of the services we need," Hirschman said.

Grove said many blind students do well in their home schools. Others need more specialized services that could be provided at regional centers, Grove said.

Iowa Braille supporters say the school's staff is better trained to provide the specialized instruction students require. In addition, they said, if officials publicized the school's services, more parents would opt to send their children to it.

"If other parents understood the potential their children could gain from that school, it would make a huge difference," said Terry Anderson of Ankeny, whose 19-year-old son Ben attends Iowa Braille. Ben, who has cerebral palsy and is visually impaired, attended neighborhood schools until three years ago when his father learned about Iowa Braille's program.

Since attending the school, Ben's vocabulary has expanded and his social skills improved, Anderson said. "You kind of feel like a bad parent, sending your child away for a week and only having them home on the weekends. It's very hard to do. But when you see the difference it makes, it's well worth it."

During the school year, students are bused to Iowa Braille on Sunday evenings and return home on Friday nights. Students, whose ages this year range from 8 to 20, work on academic and mobility skills. They also gain independent living skills such as cooking and cleaning. Recreation is available. The facility's recreation building includes a swimming pool, basketball court, wrestling room and two bowling lanes. Dormitories include kitchen facilities and a laundry area.

Some Iowa Braille students attend Vinton-Shellsburg schools for part of their day.

For the past 18 months, regents have studied how services are provided to visually impaired students. Declining enrollment at the school and the amount of money spent on it spurred the study. A committee is expected to make suggestions for changes this summer.

Workloads vary

One issue the committee has studied is teacher workloads, which vary year to year and among area education agencies.

Reid Frey, an orientation/mobility specialist in southeast Iowa, has 17 students this year. He meets with some twice weekly; others he sees monthly. Sessions usually last an hour, said Frey, who a year ago worked with 30 students.

"I think the kids are getting good services now," he said.

Kim Brown, who also works out of Great River AEA, is a teacher of the visually impaired. Like Frey, she has 17 students this year.

"Most of the time I have enough time in the week to do everything I need to," she said. "But there are times when I should be here, when I am there."

But even with extra help, some visually impaired students can struggle at their home school.

Jared Nylin, 13, said he fell behind in math when he attended his neighborhood elementary school. "They didn't know how to teach math. (At Iowa Braille) there's not as many kids, so the teachers can work with you."

Many of Iowa's teachers of the visually impaired are paid by the regents even though the teachers work out of area education agencies. That's because the regents pay more than do the area education agencies, officials said.

"The vision teachers in our state can go anywhere they want to go," said Lana Michelson , the Iowa Department of Education's bureau chief of Children, Family and Community Services. Michelson is also a member of the regents committee.

Teachers of the visually impaired are in great demand nationwide, and salaries are usually higher in other states, Michelson said. About two years ago, the University of Northern Iowa began a training program for teachers of the visually impaired.

"We're trying to grow our own," Michelson said. No teachers have yet completed the program.

Because of the scarcity of teachers of the visually impaired, it's important that they reach as many students as possible, education officials said. Having 11 instructors for 34 students at Iowa Braille may not be the best way to use resources, they said.

Officials need to decide the best way to provide services to Iowa's blind and visually impaired students, Michelson said. "It's always been about services. How are we going to make sure that children who are visually impaired in this state get the direct instruction they need?"

Many teachers of the visually impaired spend one or two hours weekly with their students. That amount of time likely isn't adequate for a young child learning Braille, Michelson said.

"We are limiting these children ourselves by not providing appropriate programs."

End of article.

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