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January 22, 2004

Deaf school hopes for new dormitories

From: Press-Enterprise, CA - Jan 22, 2004

FUNDS: There's nearly $70 million for the campus in Gov. Schwarzenegger's budget.

By MARIA T. GARCIA / The Press-Enterprise

For 50 years, the dormitories at California School for the Deaf, Riverside, have been a home away from home for thousands of children.

Although they lack the coziness of home, the dorms have been one of the few places where deaf or hard-of-hearing children can feel comfortable and accepted. Now officials at the state-run school are hoping that a little help from Gov. Schwarzenegger will make the dormitories look and feel more like home.

Schwarzenegger's proposed budget earmarks nearly $70 million for new dorms and a campus cooling system. The spending plan must be approved by the Legislature before it goes into effect.

Assemblyman John Benoit, R-Palm Desert, who represents much of Riverside, has visited the campus and believes the school stands a good chance of receiving state funding.

"I think the chances are pretty good that they'll get it," Benoit said by phone from Sacramento. "It's critically necessary that we help them out."

School officials hope the funding will remain intact through the budget's May revise. The money, combined with millions from a school and university construction bond passed by voters in November, could help fuel a building boom not seen since the school opened in 1953.

The school's construction wish list includes remodeled classrooms that allow for the latest technology, an indoor theater tailored to the needs of deaf people and new dorms. The existing living quarters would be razed in phases over the next few years.

The school serves roughly 500 students and is one of two state-run residential deaf schools in California. The other is in the San Francisco Bay Area community of Fremont.

In October, the Riverside campus marked the opening of a new $6 million middle school. It was the first new school building in the campus' 50-year history.

With new residence halls, school officials hope to trade the term dormitory, which they believe evokes an institutional setting, for the warmer word "cottage." Besides the bedrooms, each cottage would feature a central kitchen, recreation room and computer lab. In the center would be a patio with picnic tables and bike racks.

The existing dorms are far from that.

"They're like warehouse-type buildings, and they're not very conducive to students living there," said Superintendent Harold Kund. "Many parents look at the dorms and say, 'I don't think I want my child living there.' "

The 13 dormitory buildings, named after California mountains such as Lassen and Palomar, have long, drab hallways that give entry into bedrooms with bare, gray walls, some with big holes in them. Inside every room are two twin beds and a couple of battered mint-green desks. Some decorations, such as sports posters and student drawings, adorn the walls.

About 180 students, whose homes are as far as 200 miles away, live there Sunday through Friday.

Senior Richard Tang of Arcadia has called the dorms home for the past five years. At first the dorms made him homesick, Richard said.

"It felt unreal," he said through a sign-language interpreter. "When I first came, I thought the dorms would have more furniture."

His mother, Dana Tang, said she still can't get used to the dorms' darkness, among other things.

"Home is better," Tang said by phone. "They don't have comfortable tables to study. The restrooms need to totally change."

Besides being far from comfortable, the existing dorms are not accessible to people with physical disabilities and could be dangerous in an emergency such as a fire, school spokeswoman Deborah Cook said. The long hallways mean employees would have to go door-to-door down a long corridor rousing students, she said. The new dorms will be safer, because, since the rooms will be in circular structures, staff will be able to evacuate them quicker in the event of an emergency, Cook said.

Reach Maria T. Garcia at (909) 368-9455 or