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March 29, 2003

Upgrading called awesome at Schools for Deaf, Blind

From: Jackson Clarion Ledger, MS - Mar 29, 2003

By Cathy Hayden

In his school's new science lab, Demarcus Wiggins is having a blast looking at organisms through a microscope.

That sounds like a typical high school science lab activity, but Wiggins, 16, is visually impaired and a 10th-grader at Mississippi School for the Blind.

The Gunnison native — who has some sight — is able to see the organisms because the microscope is attached to a special television that allows him to view them.

The new lab in the academic wing opened about a year ago.

"I like doing experiments," Wiggins said. "I like using the microscope and looking at all kinds of organisms."

Since 1995, the Mississippi Schools for the Deaf and Blind have been undergoing construction and renovation.

The two campuses off I-55 in Jackson were formerly divided by Eastover Drive.

The overhaul has concentrated on bringing both schools together south of Eastover along with updating dormitories, academic and physical education facilities. They share some buildings — including an auditorium, gym, cafeteria and vocational center — that were formerly separate.

The price tag has been nearly $30 million. The two schools requested another $7.5 million from the Legislature to be spent this year but got $1.9 million that will be used to renovate a dorm.

Rosie Pridgen, superintendent for the School for the Blind, says the last real construction on the campuses was in 1979. "Other states are looking at cutting services. We're a model," Pridgen said.

John Jun, superintendent for the School for the Blind since July, repeatedly describes the work on the campus as "awesome."

"The state of Mississippi ought to be very proud of what they are doing for kids," he said. "The facilities are second to none. We have so much potential now."

Aretha Matthews of Ridgeland, whose 13-year-old daughter Watiera, a sixth-grader who has been at the School for the Deaf since kindergarten, said has noticed the improvements.

"They need a little more money to expand. Maybe that can bring more kids in," she said.

Leasie Gilley of Pearl is particularly pleased with the auditorium renovation being completed.

Her son Kainen, 14, a sixth-grader at the School for the Blind, sings in the choir.

"It's nice to have a new facility to sit in. We are very proud of that. They do have a lot of programs there," she said.

The auditorium "was very, very old. It needed to be replaced," she said.

Kenny Bush of Philadelphia, chairman of the state Board of Education, said, with the renovation and construction, "we will have, if not the best, one of the best, facilities like this anywhere in the country."

LaStrata Owens, 20, an 11th-grader from Jackson, lives on campus when he participates in track.

The new science lab "is bigger than the other one. We do a lot more in here than we could in the other one," he said.

Teacher Randy Thompson, also the wrestling coach, still sees plenty of needs in the lab for equipment but once gas shutoffs are installed with the construction of a second science lab for deaf students, he will be able to do much more.

Shirley Williams, a science teacher at the School for the Deaf, is ready for that school's new lab, on the second floor of the main academic building, to be open.

Gesturing at the classroom where she is teaching a lesson on geographic land forms, Williams says, "This doesn't look like a science lab."

Two of her students agree they want the science lab but they're more concerned about the physical development facility to be built beginning in May.

Eddie Brown, 15, plays basketball. The current gym "has no bleachers. There is no space," Brown said, using sign language as Williams interpreted.

"This one is old," said Kenneth Jackson, 15, of the current gym, also speaking through Williams.

Jun and Pridgen say physical activities are important to develop blind and deaf students.

"Most of what we learn, we learn visually," Pridgen said. "When you have children who are blind or partially sighted, they need the opportunity to have enough space. They have to be able to run, jump, skip and hop."

Physical education is more than just another subject to them. "It's in their program," she said.

Bush said board members favor thoroughly reviewing all the extracurricular facilities. "I'm aware of the fact that there has to be some extras for these students to provide for their safety and to give them further assistance to be able to participate in these physical activities and extracurricular sports," he said. "I do think that we need to be cautious that we don't overspend and provide the extras that are not essential or necessary."

Copyright © 2003, The Clarion-Ledger.