The Columbian, Washington State.
Sunday, April 30, 2006.
Notions of how best to educate children with disabilities are light years from where they were in 1886, when the state's schools for the blind and deaf were established.
Those 120-year-old attitudes are neatly summed up in the first name and mission those schools were given: "The Washington School for Defective Youth," to educate the deaf, blind and "feeble-minded." The names changed to the Washington School for the Deaf and the Washington State School for the Blind in 1905.
That bit of trivia is contained in the introduction to a study that suggests scaling back programs at the schools, or even closing them.
"I hope it doesn't happen," said Nancy Sinkovitz, residential program supervisor for the school for the deaf. Sinkovitz's parents, daughter and granddaughter are all deaf or hard of hearing. She noted that most states have a school for the deaf. "I just know how much good they do," she said.
The two Vancouver schools are now staffed with highly trained instructors and equipped with technology to help deaf or blind children. But they are having trouble shaking the image that they're state institutions isolating those children from their peers in a model of education that's been outdated since the 1970s, when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and other federal laws promised people with disabilities the chance to pursue the same opportunities as anyone else.
The issue came up early this year when the school for the blind asked for $8.1 million to replace its gymnasium and the school for the deaf asked for $1 million to design a new building on its campus. Some legislators questioned not just the budget request, but the need for the schools.
"This was created in the time that orphanages were the philosophy," said Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, of the two schools after the study was released. Dunshee is the chairman of the House Capital Budget Committee, which declined to provide the money to the schools. Dunshee, whose wife teaches middle school, said he supports keeping kids in mainstream classrooms. "It makes better sense to keep people in the population as a whole," he said. "If that's true here, I don't know."
The budget committee hoped to learn that answer with a study from the nonpartisan Washington State Institute for Public Policy. Released in January, the study implies the schools are expensive and inefficient. It doesn't make a recommendation, but states closing or rolling back programs at the schools could save money. It points to declining enrollment and says both campuses will need tens of millions of dollars for maintenance in the coming years.
Advocates for the two schools say the study is incomplete and inaccurate, and that the legislators considering closing the facilities have never bothered to learn about the schools. The schools do more than teach the three R's, alumni and students say they teach children how to succeed despite their disabilities.
The school for the blind has technology that gives blind people access to the world of the sighted, including software that reads Internet content and e-mail. At the school for the deaf, some children aren't fluent in any language until they learn American Sign Language. The ability to communicate knocks down walls of isolation, allowing them to forge the first close friendships they've ever had.
"The study is hugely flawed," said school for the blind Superintendent Dean Stenehjem. Among other errors, it counted just 253 blind or visually impaired students in Southwest Washington, leaving out 752 blind children who are labeled "multi-disabled" by the state. "They missed two-thirds of their sample," Stenehjem said.
Dunshee agrees the study isn't perfect. For $50,000, it couldn't do much more, he said. "It was a way to start a conversation."
Dunshee said it's his job to question expensive endeavors such as the state schools. "We've got a lot of schools out in the K-12 system that need money," he said.
He is now working with Gov. Chris Gregoire to create a committee that will study the schools further. It will be modeled on the independent commission that the U.S. Department of Defense has used to look at closing military bases. The goal, Dunshee said, is to take politics out of the process.
"I want to know if we're delivering the best services to the most people at the best price for the taxpayers, " Dunshee said. He added, "We haven't even figured out how to answer the question right without people freaking out."
The school for the blind and the school for the deaf are both state funded. Their campuses are three-quarters of a mile apart, just east of downtown Vancouver. And both have "cottages" on campus where some students live during the week.
But school for the blind superintendent Stenehjem bristles when the two schools are compared, as they were in the study. He fears that information from one school will prompt decisions on behalf of both.
"The educational needs couldn't be much more different," he said.
Stenehjem also objects to a statement throughout the study, that there are "concerns about student safety" at the schools.
That is a reference to reports in the 1990s that students were sexually assaulted by other students at the school for the deaf.
At that time, victimized alumni and other officials called for the school's closure.
Instead, the governor's office, which oversees the school, hired Superintendent Todd Reeves, a member of the board that operated the school. The Legislature also instituted strict regulations to keep students safe.
"I've always believed passionately in the school," said Reeves, explaining why he took the superintendent job at a troubled time. Reeves wears a hearing aid and has worked with deaf children as a speech pathologist. He was diagnosed as being hard of hearing at 13.
There is a 1-to-7 staff-to-student ratio at the residential facility, and a system requiring students to obtain parental permission to leave campus.
Before the scandal, any deaf student was eligible to attend the school. Now, background checks are required, and students who might abuse their classmates aren't allowed to enroll.
A place to belong
To some students, the school for the deaf is a haven compared to their local schools.
Before Charnaie Frazier became one of 52 students who live full-time at the school for the deaf, she attended Tyee High School in SeaTac. Of 1,100 students, Charnaie was one of just five or six who were deaf.
An interpreter helped her understand her teachers, but the hallway chatter passed Frazier by. She was teased and struggled to make friends.
"I just suffered, and I couldn't communicate," she said through an interpreter.
"I like the school here," Frazier said. "This is a safe place for me."
Federal law requires students to be educated in the least restrictive environment, which is usually interpreted as placement in a local public school. But many of the school for the deaf's students say they feel less hindered by deafness there.
That's because all staff members at the school know sign language, and all students are taught to sign, allowing for an ease of communication that isn't possible in public schools, Reeves said.
Students also have access to speech therapy. Those with cochlear implants or limited hearing have help to develop their listening skills.
"Think about what it would be for a deaf kid in school, having all those mouths moving and not having a clue what they're saying, how frustrating that might be," said Sinkovitz, residential program supervisor at the school for the deaf.
Many other students at the school for the deaf tell the same story. They didn't have friends in public school. They didn't participate in extra-curricular activities. They struggled to learn in classrooms of hearing students.
"It was isolated because I was the only deaf student in a mainstream program," said Heather Daley, 16, through an interpreter. She tried to participate in sports, but "I sat on the bench most of the time because I couldn't hear what was going on." She left a public elementary school in California and has been attending schools for the deaf since. Now, she's captain of the cheerleading team.
"Many children with hearing loss can be successful in a public school system both academically and socially," said Patrick Stone, deaf education program coordinator at Washington State University Vancouver. "But we will always have some students with hearing loss who won't be successful in that system," he said. "Those children are entitled to an education that's geared to their needs and that can only be accomplished at a school like the Washington School for the Deaf."
A statewide resource
The Washington State School for the Blind has about 74 students, including 45 who live at the school. But the school has been working since 1991 to make itself an indispensible resource to blind students all over the state, said Stenehjem, its superintendent since 1990.
It's the only way to reach more students, Stenehjem said.
The study presented to the Legislature mentioned falling enrollment at the school, but that's inaccurate, Stenehjem said. Enrollment has been steady since 1990. And the only thing keeping it from growing, he said, is a lack of funds, not students.
"We have a waiting list for kids to come in," he said.
Public schools, required to educate anyone in their district boundaries, get state funds for each student who enrolls. That's not the case at the school for the blind.
"We're flat-funded," Stenehjem said. "It doesn't make a difference if we have 60 kids or 80 kids."
But the school works to use those funds to benefit the most children. It provides service to about 1,200 kids statewide. "We have contacts with over half the school districts in the state," Stenehjem said.
The school provides itinerant teachers who teach Braille, life skills, and concepts in math and science that are usually illustrated visually. The school also trains blind children to use assistive software and hardware, and it provides life-skills classes.
But according to the study that suggests closing the schools, local public schools can educate blind and deaf students at a lower cost than the state schools. The study notes that public schools don't pay to house the students 24 hours a day during the week.
The study surveyed students at both schools and determined that it costs $24,228 a year to educate a day student at the school for the blind and $50,677 for a student who lives at the school during the week. The study says public schools do the job for an average of $5,228 per year. Stenehjem says these figures are misleading. Most students at the school for the blind use Braille, but most public school students with vision problems have low vision and can use magnifiers and large print.
"That's not typically the kids that we'd get," Stenehjem said. Without the cost of translating and printing textbooks and other materials in Braille, the cost to educate the students is less.
The school's own research shows that local districts pay $49,120 to $79,000 to educate students who need Braille.
The resources of the school for the blind are valuable to help blind children in the Sequim School District near Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula, said Special Services Director Shelly Langston. With 2,861 students, the district is currently serving two deaf students and one blind student.
"Great services, and very expensive for us," she said. But that doesn't mean Langston thinks it could be done more cheaply.
"Saving money is relative," she said. If the school for the blind closed, the Sequim School District might not even be able to find the resources it uses from the school, let alone be able to pay for them.
"It's such a specialized field. There's just not very many certified Braille instructors. There's not enough to go around," she said. "It wouldn't be one-stop shopping for me; I'm not sure how it would work."
Spokane Public Schools, with 29,000 students and 50 blind or visually impaired students, fears the same problems. It is 10 times larger than the Sequim School District, and bigger than Clark County's largest school district, Evergreen Public Schools.
"Their programs, media center, Instructional Resource Center, that's difficult to replicate in the full continuum of services in a single setting," said Angela Johnstone, director of student support services for Spokane Public Schools. "We would say the school for the blind is a valuable resource to us."
The school for the blind's Instructional Resource Center produces written material in Braille for the whole state. It creates the state's WASL tests in Braille, as well as textbooks, which it loans to school districts all over the state.
But Johnstone says closing the schools would be a loss to more than just her district's blind and visually impaired students.
Both the Spokane and the Sequim school districts have had students transfer to the school for the blind.
"We have had a student and their family elect to move there to access the full-time school," Langston said.
Others, like Gabriel McKenna, 19, live there all week and commute home to Everett on weekends.
Gabriel lost her sight three years ago from a brain tumor. She's making up for lost school time and learning to cope with blindness.
One recent weekday at her cottage, where she lives with other blind girls, Gabriel was practicing "daily living skills," baking a cake and making deviled eggs.
When asked if there is anything that she is surprised to be able to do despite her disability, McKenna said, "Function."
She didn't even consider going back to her public school. "They'd probably trip me," she said, adding that she's grateful the school for the blind exists.
"I'm so glad I came here," she said. "It's an answer to a prayer."
Today: Are state schools a 19th-century relic or a vital resource for blind and deaf students across the state?
Monday: The schools for the blind and deaf are a source of self-esteem and social acceptance.
* At the Washington School for the Deaf, 61% of the staff members are deaf or hard of hearing. In the residential department, 49% are deaf or hard of hearing. There are 17 alumni on staff.
Nationally, about 70% of blind people are unemployed, according to the National Federation for the Blind.
* The Washington State School for the Blind has tracked the employment rate of its alumni since 1998. According to that research, 76% are either employed or attending college or a vocational program. If you include homemakers, students who are married and caring for children, the rate rises to 87%, said Superintendent Dean Stenehjem.
* In 2005 the Washington State School for the Blind's operating budget totaled $5,138,496. The Washington School for the Deaf's budget was $7,685,649.
* The Washington State School for the Blind has 107 full-time, part-time and on-call employees and about 74 students. The Washington School for the Deaf has 133 full-time, part-time and on-call employees and about 103 students.
* There is at least one state-funded school for the deaf in 39 states. There is at least one state-funded school for the blind in 30 states. In 10 states, there is a state-funded school that serves both the deaf and blind.
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