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April 6, 2003


From: Hampton Roads Daily Press, VA - Apr 6, 2003

For decades, parents, teachers and administrators at the state's schools for the deaf and blind have endured a running debate about consolidation. This time, the talk sounds serious.

By Hugh Lessig
Daily Press

Published April 6, 2003

RICHMOND -- For the past few years, state legislators have played mind games with Sonya Karber of Norfolk.

They talk about closing the Virginia School for the Deaf, Blind and Multi-Disabled at Hampton, possibly consolidating it with a school in Staunton. Then the talk goes away. Then it returns.

Sonya Karber's 11-year-old son attends the Hampton school. Kelly Karber has cerebral palsy and poor vision, but his smile is healthy enough for three kids. It's been that way ever since he transferred from Norfolk public schools and enrolled in Hampton five years ago. He's been happier and more outgoing, and his walking has improved.

Sonya wants him to stay in Hampton, and she is insistent, to put it mildly.

"I have said I would go to jail before I send my child back to the public-school system," she said. "I hate to say that, but, yes, it would be worth it. I look at how much my son has gained - how much he has."

Sonya isn't alone. For more than 25 years, parents, teachers and administrators at the Hampton and Staunton schools have endured a running debate between legislators who can't see why the state spreads scarce taxpayer dollars over two schools. The uncertainty has frazzled parents, while veteran teachers tend to respond with a tired smile and a shrug of resignation.

Now the talk is back on, and this time, the General Assembly appears to be serious.

The state budget calls for a task force to develop a plan to consolidate services for students served by the two schools. It does not say one school should close, and it's not just a study, but an honest-to-God plan to do something.

This separates it from past efforts, said Del. Mary T. Christian, the Hampton Democrat who plans to announce her retirement from the legislature later today. Christian has fought to keep the Hampton school open and has criticized past studies for beginning with the assumption that one of the schools would close.

"Developing a plan will be based on objective and analytical data," she said. "I'm seeing a plan that is very comprehensive, not just winners and losers."

Last year, Gov. Mark R. Warner deleted language from the budget that called for the Hampton school to close. This year, he let stand the language calling for the task force.

"I know there have been studies done in the past," he said, "but I think if it's the will of the legislature to have one more study, we ought to look at that."

He added, "The needs of the population continue to change."

There's the rub. Both schools serve deaf and blind students. Both sit on 70-plus-acre campuses in their respective cities. Both schools have a close-knit family atmosphere that creates fierce loyalties among parents and students. The similarities end there.

The Hampton school handles kids like Kelly, who have multiple disabilities, as well as deaf and blind students. Of its 101 students, 73 have multiple disabilities. Its state-approved curriculum is geared more toward vocational and life skills.

The Staunton school has 156 students, with none classified as multi-disabled. Its curriculum tracks the state's Standards of Learning.

A tour of the Staunton school found several students who transferred from Hampton because they liked the curriculum at Staunton. A tour of the Hampton school found students like Kelly who are flourishing because of the increased attention.

Physically, the two schools look different. The Hampton school sits on a flat landscape in a commercial area off Shell Road, its buildings outfitted with wheelchair ramps. The Staunton school is anything but flat - one set of concrete steps goes straight up a hill for several flights. It's difficult to imagine children in wheelchairs getting around without significant structural improvements.

Nancy Armstrong is the superintendent of the Staunton school, officially known as the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind at Staunton. The school doesn't take an official position on consolidation or merging. If a population of multidisabled kids came to Staunton, the school would find a way to make it work, she said. But she wonders about the effects of a four- or five-hour bus ride from the Tidewater on wheelchair-bound kids.

So does Sonya Karber. Her husband, Jason, is on the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman, and the home front is a handful. Besides Kelly, she has twin 7-year-old boys.

"The idea of Kelly being gone from home - I'm not mentally prepared for that," she said. "His father is in the Navy and is deployed. It is me and three little boys and occasionally my nephews."

Maybe the two schools need each other. Jeff Lawson, who's taught shop at Staunton for 28 years, suggested that the school would need Hampton's help to incorporate a multidisabled population.

"Our staff is stretched so thin right now because we have so many students, who for different reasons, need a lot of attention," he said. "If the multidisabled population came here, then I think it would require - this is my own personal opinion - probably the renovation of one of our buildings or the creation of a new facility. It would require a huge number of their (Hampton) staff that's trained in that disabled population being able to come with them."

Lawson has a unique perspective on the history of the two schools.

His family is from the Hampton-Poquoson area. His father was born deaf, but he couldn't enter the Hampton school in the days of segregation. The Hampton school was established in 1906 to serve black children, and Lawson's father was white.

The family picked up and moved to Staunton, which was the white-only school.

'The whole reason I exist here is because of the segregationist policy," he said.

Christian, a leader in Hampton's black community, recognizes the historical importance of the Hampton school, but her position isn't inflexible.

"I'm a supporter of the Hampton school," she said. "I would not defend the Hampton school if, indeed, I felt that the plan would show another situation would be more beneficial."

Lawson is of like mind. His bottom line is a solution that benefits the students.

"I don't want to be a hypocrite - we think this is the ideal campus," he said. "But if you can prove to me that you're doing what's best for the kids, then that's what you should do."

To make matters more complicated, there's more at stake than the student populations of both schools.

The Hampton School District leases space at the state-owned campus for two programs. One targets underprivileged 4-year-olds. The second is a charter school that helps elementary and secondary students who can't succeed in conventional classrooms.

Hampton school officials lease the space because they need it. The district hasn't built a school building since 1976, and it uses 120 portable classrooms. The school doesn't oppose consolidation of the two state schools, but it wants to keep its programs on the Hampton campus.

Newport News also has a stake in the debate: Should the Hampton school close, Newport News might have to take back about a dozen multidisabled children with special needs. The cost to the district would be about $500,000, said Robert Pietrasanta, director of special education and assessment services.

Pietrasanta said the $500,000 figure amazed even him.

There's an emotional cost, as well. Last year, when it looked as if the Hampton school might close, Pietrasanta fielded telephone calls from concerned parents who thought that their children might have to move to Staunton. "These parents," he said, "did not want to be separated from the students."

Finally, there could be educational harm. Multidisabled kids do best in an environment that's consistent and familiar, said Claudine Wiggins, a Hampton teacher who's taught Kelly Karber. Even though a public school or another state school might offer the same program, it's not as simple as plucking children out of one class and putting them in another.

Multidisabled children who make progress during the week can backslide over the weekend if their parents don't follow through with a particular program or instruction, she said. It can happen that fast.

Wiggins began teaching at Hampton in 1980, so she's heard this consolidation talk before.

"Every three to five years, it comes up," she said, "but this time, it's gotten closer than it ever has been. I hope through the governor - well, the Lord and the governor - we'll remain open."

Hugh Lessig can be reached at (804) 225-7345 or by e-mail at

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