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July 4, 2005

State moving toward consolidation of schools for deaf, blind

From: - Norfolk,VA,USA - Jul 4, 2005

By ZINIE CHEN SAMPSON / Associated Press

One school was founded in the Shenandoah Valley in 1838 for deaf and blind students. The other opened in southeast Virginia in 1909 for black students barred by segregation from attending the first school.

Because of declining enrollment and increased maintenance costs, Virginia will consolidate the schools, a process that has been on the horizon for decades but finally is becoming reality.

The schools in Staunton and Hampton have educated thousands of young Virginians with impaired hearing and sight but have seen steady enrollment declines since the mid-1970s, after federal special-education law began requiring that local school districts integrate more students with disabilities into regular classrooms.

"The need to consolidate the schools has been put forward" over many years, said Karen Trump, the Virginia Department of Education's director of state-operated programs. "Dropping enrollment was the key piece to generate that requirement."

Compared with 500 students attending each school years ago, Trump said, today the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind in Staunton has 156 students, while the Virginia School for the Deaf, Blind and Multi-Disabled in Hampton has 65.

The state's increasing cost to maintain the aging schools — each with an annual operating budget of $7 million — also was a factor in the General Assembly's passage of a budget measure this year calling for consolidation.

The state Board of Education will decide at its July 27 meeting whether to proceed with considering two proposals submitted under the Public-Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act, state Department of Education spokeswoman Julie Grimes said. The act encourages partnerships between public and private entities, so taxpayers don't have to foot a project's entire cost. The state budget allotted $61.5 million for such a project but didn't allocate any funds for a conventional capital construction project.

One group calling itself Children First seeks to renovate the Staunton campus. The other group led by developer Trammell Crow Co. proposes that the state choose from three options: a new site in either Richmond, Charlottesville or Staunton; renovation, demolition, and new construction on the current Staunton campus; or renovation of Staunton's buildings.

According to the budget language, the Board of Education is to select a proposal by July 31, but Grimes couldn't say when an actual site for the consolidated school would be determined.

The Staunton school opened in 1839 after an Augusta County delegate provided land for the school, which served as a Confederate hospital during the Civil War.

In 1909, to serve the needs of black students excluded from the other school, the state opened the Virginia State School for Colored Deaf and Blind Children in Hampton. It admitted its first white student in 1964 and also started educating students with multiple disabilities.

Today, both schools offer day student and residential services to students referred from their home public school districts under their individualized education programs.

The consolidation has prompted strong reactions from students, alumni, local politicians and community members concerned about the departure of longtime community institutions. Hampton Superintendent Darlene White said that continuing speculation hasn't helped either school.

"There's been an ongoing level of competitiveness between the schools," she said. "It's almost as though you have twins who are fighting for survival."

Staunton student Michael Sprouse, 14, has been active in trying to keep his school open and said he has made his views clear in letters to state legislators.

"I would be greatly affected because if my school closes, every single piece of my history is lost," the deaf teen said through an operator who read his typed message. He also said that a new school would be more isolated than Staunton, which has a strong deaf community.

In Hampton, residents formed a task force and circulated a petition to keep the school open but were disappointed when their school didn't make it onto the proposed consolidation plans.

"I think both schools should exist" as regional schools, Ralph Shelman, a blind alumnus of the Hampton school and executive director of the Peninsula Center for Independent Living, said after the proposals were made public. "I don't think kids should come from Staunton to here any more than we have to go up there."

But Trump said a new facility would offer an improved, centralized school for students who would benefit from state-of-the-art technology and other updated features that their local school can't necessarily provide.

Shelman worries that many Hampton Roads parents won't send their children to the new school, no matter how nice it is.

"Public schools will be faced with having to educate these kids without the proper equipment, teachers, training," he said. "The schools will not be accessible, so the kids will be in a restricted environment because parents don't want their kids to be sent far away."

Even though the budget makes provisions for transferring children who don't enroll in the new school into local school divisions, Shelman said there likely won't be enough funds to hire and train enough teachers qualified to instruct children with multiple disabilities in several school divisions.

Virginia's situation isn't unique. Similar facilities across the country have seen enrollments fall over the last three decades since the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act required that school districts try to mainstream students with disabilities. Better prenatal care and immunizations also have decreased the number of children born blind or deaf, experts say.

In addition to desegregation, a cultural shift has taken place since the two schools opened, with families no longer feeling they need to send off disabled children to special facilities. "We as a society interact with individuals with disabilities in a totally different way than we did 100 years ago," White said.

In Montana, however, the legislature has expanded funding for the state's school for the deaf and blind in Great Falls, said Darrell Rud, executive director of School Administrators of Montana.

"The size of the state makes it difficult to get good services for blind and deaf students," Rud said. "In several school districts it was really difficult to get highly qualified teachers to come to Montana; they could get a lot of money somewhere else. We can't just hire a warm body to meet the complex needs of students, deaf or blind."


On the Net:
Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind:
Virginia School for the Deaf, Blind and Multi-Disabled:

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