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October 6, 2003

Va. Tries To Balance Its Needs

From: Washington Post, DC - Oct 6, 2003

Budget Shortfall Threatens to Consolidate Sister Schools for Deaf and Blind

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 6, 2003; Page B01

Joan Cooke sobbed all the way home to Richmond the first time she left her son, then 11, at the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind in the Shenandoah Valley. She didn't think Chase was ready -- and she knew she wasn't ready -- for someone else to tuck him in at night.

But Chase wanted to go to school where his friends would get his jokes without an interpreter and he wouldn't be the only deaf kid on the basketball team. Last month, he started his freshman year at Gallaudet University for the deaf in Washington.

Kelly Karber, 11, is enrolled in Virginia's only other public residential school for the blind and deaf, in Hampton. In addition to his visual impairment, Kelly has cerebral palsy and is fed through a tube in his stomach. Last year, Kelly learned to use a cup; this year, his mother hopes, he'll learn to dress himself.

Even as enrollment declines at both schools, the state spends $12 million each year to keep them open -- about $63,000 per child, tens of thousands of dollars more than local school districts spend to educate students with disabilities. For years, Virginia legislators have debated whether to merge them, and this year they say they're determined to do it.

That's been said before, but nobody has ever been able to choose between the two: the 150-year-old school in Staunton, which offers a full academic curriculum to high-functioning students, or the Hampton school, founded in 1906 for blind and deaf black children and now serving increasing numbers of students with multiple disabilities.

The debate, which begins with money, has often foundered on matters of race and geography -- the two schools are 180 miles apart, neither centrally located. But the main question is whether state-run residential schools make sense almost 30 years after federal laws began requiring local school systems to educate children with disabilities in regular classrooms whenever possible.

Again and again, the decision to do nothing has come down to environment -- to the desire of some children or their parents for a place where students don't feel different and where teaching methods are designed for them.

"Anyone who thinks that you can just do it simply doesn't realize the political implications and doesn't realize the differences in opinion among people who want good training for people with visual and hearing impairments," said Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta), a member of a task force that must recommend a plan to consolidate the schools' services.

The options on the table go beyond closing one school and moving its programs to the other. Among the alternatives is closing both and building a more central school -- an option that received serious consideration at the task force's monthly meeting Thursday. The only given, according to state Board of Education member Scott Goodman, chairman of the committee, is that there isn't enough money to run all the current programs at both campuses, each big enough to accommodate the other's students.

"You have a very manageable number of children," Goodman said, "and you also have a budget situation that is very dicey."

The persistent indecision has many causes. One is the difference between children like Chase and those like Kelly.

Staunton graduates are expected to go to college or work. About half of Hampton graduates go to work, while the rest move into the care of local agencies or group homes. Since the early 1990s, the Virginia School for the Deaf, Blind and Multi-Disabled at Hampton has been designated as the school for children with at least one other disability besides hearing or vision problems, and many students are seriously disabled. Parents at both schools question the wisdom of melding the groups.

"My son is not one of those I can foresee ever counting from one to five," said Kelly's mother, Sonya Karber, who believes that both schools should stay open. "My concern is, can he help me get his shirt on him? One of our goals is to get him eating baby food."

Karber said she would never send her son on the bus trip across Virginia from their home in Norfolk.

Nor would Josh Eubank, 20, a Staunton student from Loudoun County, consider going to Hampton, which has reduced its academic program as the number of severely disabled students has risen. Even Staunton can't match Loudoun's curriculum, Eubank said, but public high school was "really, really depressing" for a blind student. When he hit his teen years, he saw friends drop away one by one.

Since enrolling at Staunton last year, Josh has helped start a band called the Dorm Dogs and met a girl he likes enough to introduce to his parents. "He would call home and I'd hear his friends in the background laughing and making fun of him," his mother, Bonnie, said. "That was good to hear."

Founded in 1839, the Staunton school was the first public school for the blind and the deaf in the country, according to its superintendent, Nancy Armstrong, and its alumni are determined lobbyists. Many are like Leonard Earl Wright, who arrived as a deaf 8-year-old in 1959, knowing no sign language and unable to communicate even with his parents. By Christmas, he was fluent. Wright graduated in 1970, went to college and became a teacher of deaf children.

"The school allowed me the opportunity to be involved fully -- the literacy clubs, the drama clubs, Boy Scouts," he said through an interpreter. "They molded me into what I am."

Rachel Bavister, who taught deaf students at the school for 30 years, describes it as an incubator for independence, sheltering students just long enough to teach them how to get along in the world. Among her former students, she said, are a professor of clinical psychology and an accountant.

"We have deaf staff and staff who communicate, so our kids have absolutely no excuse not to grow up to be citizens, hold a job and contribute," Bavister, who is deaf, said in a written interview.

Hampton's story is closely linked with Staunton's. The school was founded by a white Staunton graduate for the children barred from Staunton because of race, and alumni loyalty to its heritage "is no different," Hampton Superintendent Darlene White said.

"Both schools are embedded in the communities that they serve. . . . By no means is this a setting that does not have a legacy of its own."

Today, 81 percent of Hampton's staff and two-thirds of its 73 students are black, and at Staunton, 93 percent of staff and almost three-quarters of its 118 students are white. Many Hampton advocates are convinced that theirs is still considered "the black school" and, therefore, a target for closure, said Nan Mills-Smith, a vision specialist with Hampton City schools who works closely with the state school.

Goodman said the racial designations ended years ago and play no role in the merger discussion. Still, he acknowledged that "we need to bend over backwards to make sure everyone knows this is being done fairly."

The prospect of closing any state facility causes anxiety among its employees, Hangar said. Legislators from both sides of the state have tried to protect the closest school, partly to preserve access for their constituents and partly to shelter more than 150 jobs at each site.

Each school has a 70-plus acre campus. At hilly Staunton, historic buildings that date to the 19th century would need extensive renovations for Hampton students in wheelchairs.

Hampton's buildings have been refurbished or replaced over the years and most were built in the 1970s, but the school there would need to reclaim space it rents to local school districts.

Rather than choose between the two, however, the legislators could choose to close them both, as more and more of the state's hearing and visually impaired students -- 95 percent of them last year -- are being educated at their local schools.

Federal law requires schools to provide access to children with disabilities. Only if teachers and parents agree that the local system cannot give a child an appropriate education can they consider outside placements.

"Rarely have we made that recommendation," said Billy Ritter, vision specialist for Prince William schools, which sent three of its 188 hearing and visually impaired students to Staunton last year and one to Hampton. "It's both that we're very confident in services for our children and we feel that if students are going to live and function in a community, they should live in that community."

Fairfax County sent three of its 740 hearing or visually impaired students to Staunton last year and seven to Hampton. Those who stay home have a range of options, including classes taught by special teachers, interpreters to accompany them to classes and classes taught in sign language.

But advocates say that for some, the residential option is critical. Bavister, the former Staunton teacher, notes that the sign language symbol for "mainstreaming" is the same as the symbol for "drowning."

"At their home schools, unfortunately, they're usually the token," said Mary Murray, director of student life at Staunton. "Here, they have a chance to be the leader."

White said the never-ending merger discussion has prevented Virginia educators from talking more broadly about how to serve students.

"This is always about who will survive versus what do we need and how we can best make that happen," she said.

The task force has until Dec. 1 to make a recommendation. But many educators believe that lawmakers will decide, again, not to decide -- and Staunton superintendent Armstrong said that will be a disservice to the students at both schools.

"It's been unjust to everyone involved that . . . we've stretched it out for so long," she said.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company