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October 19, 2002

Deaf and blind students find a home at St. Augustine school

From: Sarasota Herald-Tribune, FL
Oct. 19, 2002


Frustrated with the education her daughter was getting in Oregon, Janet Feinberg started searching two years ago for a school that would be better for Rachel.

The 14-year-old ninth-grader, who can only see a little bit out of the left side of her left eye, was bored at the two public schools she had attended with limited opportunities for visually impaired students.

So after a lot of research and a visit to St. Augustine's Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, Feinberg decided it was the place for Rachel. She, her husband and their three children moved across the country about a year ago and haven't looked back.

"We made a big life change in order for her to get the education we wanted for her," Feinberg said. "It's been as good or even better than we expected."

Students like Rachel are just part of the reason the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind has experienced phenomenal growth in the past decade - an average of 11 percent a year since 1992. It has one of the largest student populations among other deaf and blind schools in the United States and is looking into expanding its campus.

Rachel is now in classes with other visually impaired students, and mobility classes, guitar lessons and physical education are part of her curriculum. Her mother formerly drove her several miles for mobility and guitar lessons and she went to an area YMCA that offered a combined gymnastics and swimming class for visually impaired children.

"It's really nice because everything's in Braille," Rachel said. "The education is designed for us. At my other school I would just sit there and be bored because I didn't know what to do. They didn't adapt their courses to blind people."

The closest similar schools are the Georgia Academy for the Blind in Macon and the Georgia Academy for the Deaf in Cave Spring. The closest school for both deaf and blind students is in Talladega, Ala.

Fewer than 20 students at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind are both deaf and blind.

The Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind is funded by the state and has about 800 students. Many families moved here so their children could attend. Tuition, room and board, and travel to and from the school are free for Florida residents.

The school currently does not have any out-of-state students, who would have to pay about $10,000 for tuition, room and board, and transportation within Florida, said Kathy Gillespie, a school spokeswoman. About 74 percent of the students live on campus in dorms throughout the week and go home on weekends and holidays. The rest of the students live close enough to ride buses.

"We have the most extensive and appropriate resources for both types of students," said Elmer Dillingham, the school's president. "It's virtually impossible for districts, especially small and middle-size ones, to provide a quality program."

Visually- and hearing-impaired students who attend St. Johns County district schools receive a good education, said Christine Chancey, director of exceptional student education for the school district. The district has four instructors who travel to the schools that visually and hearing-impaired students attend, contracts for interpreters and provides supplies such as Braille books and printers and computers that print in Braille.

But district schools can't offer those students the same socialization they'd get at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, Chancey said.

"They don't have peers that are visually- or hearing-impaired," she said. "Not everyone signs, but there everyone probably signs. The socialization with their peers is probably tougher for them."

Suzanne Sanders said her 14-year-old deaf son was never invited to birthday parties or sleepovers before her family moved here from Bradenton four years ago so he could attend the school.

"He was always left out," she said. "He has a very full social calendar now."

The Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind offers the same sports district schools offer, including football, basketball, swimming, track and field, and wrestling. The teams compete against small private schools and against other deaf schools in Alabama, Maryland and Washington, D.C., said Bruce Curtis, the school's athletic director.

The Dragons have gone to the state playoffs in basketball, football and, most recently, in track and field, Curtis said. The school also has a goalball team. Goalball is a sport blind people play by rolling a ball with bells in it over the opponent's back line. The school has a band, jazz ensemble and dance troupe. Perhaps its most famous alumnus is musician Ray Charles.

Another feature is the school's nearly 24-hour, recently expanded health care center and its agreement with the University of Florida to offer more extensive medical services.

The deaf department's new high school building was completed over the summer. It consolidated academic and vocational classes into one building that also has several Internet connections, computer, science and career labs, and a wood shop.

The school opened in 1885 as The School for the Blind, Deaf and Dumb. Thomas Hines Coleman, a deaf man, persuaded state officials to fund it because Florida was one of the few states that still hadn't made provisions for educating visually and hearing-impaired children.

The state took bids from several cities for a location. St. Augustine offered the best bid with $1,000 and 5 acres of land where the original three wooden buildings were built.

The school had 62 students by 1892 and held its first graduation in 1898.

Today, the school is spread across 70 acres, has about 45 major buildings and an operating budget of about $30 million. It is run by a seven-member Board of Trustees that appoints the school's leaders, including its president.

Students work on campus and at dozens of businesses throughout the community through the school's career education program.

About 70 percent of its graduates continue their education at colleges, universities and technical training centers. Graduates go on to jobs in just about every field including accounting, computer programming and teaching.

"What the school turns out in competitive, employable, graduating students is enviable," said state Sen. Jim King, a Jacksonville Republican whose district includes St. Augustine. King has fought for more state money to help the school expand its programs and to keep its teachers' salaries comparable to those in district schools.

School officials also want to expand the campus. The school recently bought 11 parcels and plans to move its security buildings and build independent living facilities in two to four years, Dillingham said.

About 12 students, probably seniors and continuing education students, would live in each of the four two-story homes, Dillingham said.

But not everyone is pleased with the school's plans. Nearby residents have complained the school is going through with its plans without involving them and without following the regular process the city requires.

Some of the buildings the school purchased are more than 50 years old and can't be torn down or moved for a year without permission from the city Historic Architectural Review Board, said Mark Knight, city planning and building director.

The school has not gone before the board, Knight said. The city and the school have asked the state attorney general for an opinion on whether the school has to follow city rules and ordinances regarding these issues, Knight said.

Beyond those plans, Dillingham said he doesn't anticipate the student population to grow enough to require any further expansion during his lifetime.

© Sarasota Herald-Tribune.