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July 28, 2005

State responds to pleas for deaf and blind school

From: Virginian Pilot, VA - Jul 28, 2005

The Virginian-Pilot
© July 28, 2005

RICHMOND — The State Board of Education moved ahead in consolidating Virginia's two schools for the deaf and blind Wednesday and directed the company to add Hampton to the list of potential sites.

Also at the meeting, the board unanimously agreed to give some middle schools a break on their American history test scores after some of the results came back disappointingly low.

The board took action on the deaf and blind schools after hearing emotional pleas from supporters of the School for the Deaf, Blind and Multi-disabled, which opened in Hampton in 1909 for black students who were barred from attending the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind in Staunton.

Board members chose a developer after reviewing consolidation proposals from two groups. Neither listed Hampton as a possible location, meaning that the school there would probably close and its students would have to move to Staunton or get their education elsewhere.

"It's inhumane to even think about busing students 250 miles to another location," Hampton civil rights activist Rudy Langford told the board during a 90-minute public hearing.

Some speakers also suggested that racial bias might be at play.

"Why does it always have to be the black school that is closed?" said Catherine Northan, who presented petitions with more than 40,000 signatures supporting the Hampton school.

Several Hampton residents supported keeping both schools open, but that was not an option for the board. The General Assembly has voted to consolidate the schools because of shrinking enrollment and increased maintenance costs.

The Staunton school has 156 students, the Hampton school 65. Both had about 500 students several years ago.

"In a perfect world, I would also like to see the two schools remain open," said Rachel Bavister, president of the Virginia Association for the Deaf. "However, the number of students has diminished and funding has also diminished. We know consolidation has to happen."

The board selected a proposal by developer Trammell Crow Co. over one by a team of builders and architects calling itself Children First, which proposed renovating the Staunton school in time for the start of the 2007 school year.

Trammell Crow's proposal allows the state to choose from three options: renovating the Staunton school, razing it and rebuilding on campus, or building a new school in Charlottesville, Richmond or elsewhere in Staunton.

After meeting for more than an hour in closed session, the board unanimously accepted the Trammell Crow proposal but added Hampton to the sites the developer must consider.

The developers' proposals were presented under the Public-Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act . The law encourages partnerships between public and private entities so taxpayers don't have to foot a project's entire costs.

The state budget allotted $61.5 million for such a project. The board could have rejected both proposals and recommended adding the project to the state's six-year building plan, but no money was budgeted for that approach.

In other business at Wednesday's meeting, the board decided that middle school American history test scores should count only if they benefited schools.

Many divisions across the state had complained that their U.S. History 1 scores were unusually low. Division officials were concerned that they would keep some schools from gaining state accreditation.

In Suffolk, three more elementary schools will earn full state accreditation because of the state board's decision, said Bethanne D. Bradshaw, the division's spokeswoman. At Robertson Elementary only about 15 percent of fifth-graders passed.

Officials are uncertain why the scores were so low, but they have suggested that it may be because it is a new test that students and teachers aren't familiar with taking or giving. This is the second year that the state has given schools a pass on history tests. Last year, the scores from the U.S. History 1 and 2, along with the Civic and Economics tests, were waived if they hurt schools.

The state board's decision takes effect immediately and will affect accreditation results for the 2005- 06 school year.

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