Ryan Holeywell is a staff writer at GOVERNING.E-mail: email@example.com
The Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind -- one of the oldest schools of its kind -- is finishing work on a $71 million facelift that's poised to transform the campus.
The school, located in Staunton, Va., about 150 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., dates back to 1838. Today, it hosts 79 deaf students and 35 blind students, most of whom live on campus during the week and go home on the weekends.
This summer, work will be nearly completed on a four-year construction project that will produce a new educational building, a renovated student center and two new dormitories, among other improvements.
Richard Sliwoski, director of Virginia's Department of General Services, said it’s one of the more meaningful projects in his government career. For years, the aging campus was in need of upgrades, he says. “These were kids that deserved better," Sliwoski said. “They sort of captured my heart.”
The renovations came along with the state’s decision to close Virginia's other school for deaf and blind students, which was located in Hampton, Va., and combine the two campuses in 2008. At one time, there were enough deaf and blind students to necessitate both schools, but enrollment has been on the decline for decades. This is partly due to medical advances reducing the prevalence of diseases like rubella and meningitis that can cause permanent hearing or vision loss, and partly due to the increasing role that local school districts have taken in educating deaf and blind students.
The Staunton school was also recently transformed into its own independent state agency and freed from the state education department's control.
At the school, known as VSDB, students behave just like their peers across the state. They play sports. They go to prom. They play pranks on each other. They get in trouble when they break the rules. It’s an environment that administrators and students alike say wouldn't be possible if those students had continued to receive schooling at their local districts.
By federal law, states are required to educate students with disabilities in what’s known as the “least restrictive environment.” That means that, when possible, they should be educated side-by-side with their peers who aren’t disabled. In many cases, deaf students attend traditional schools alongside a sign language interpreter. But many of the advocates for schools like VSDB say it’s actually the traditional school environment that’s restrictive, and the only reason the students at VSDB are able to act like typical kids is because of their unique environment.
At a traditional school, a deaf student may feel both socially and linguistically isolated outside of the classroom, since there’s no way for him or her to hear what’s going on around them. While a typical student would hear a cacophony of conversations in the cafeteria, for example, a deaf student would hear nothing.
Experts on deaf education say students can only learn when they start acquiring language, and deaf students can only do that well if they are immersed in American Sign Language. So at VSDB, even hearing staff use ASL to talk to each other, and rooms have been designed to provide strong sight lines so students can see conversations occurring around them. That immersion helps deaf students develop their own language skills.
“It really levels the playing field for these kids,” says Mary Murray, the director of student life. “Because everyone is deaf and signs all the time, they’re learning 24/7.”
Classes are small. For the deaf, classes are taught in sign language, and blind students have access to tons of technology that facilitates their reading and note-taking.
“What’s special about this school is the kids can be themselves,” says Principal Jack Johnson, who knows firsthand how important it is for the students to get the support they need. Johnson, who is deaf, says that he was initially labeled as mentally retarded until he was placed in appropriate schooling for the deaf.
Many of the students attend VSDB because their districts lack the resources to provide adequate schooling for the deaf or blind, or because they have other disabilities in addition to their deafness and blindness that require greater attention.
Many wind up thriving once they arrive and rapidly improve their reading levels. Because most of the students live here during the week, there’s also a sense of community. Several of the school’s staff members and teachers are also graduates of the school. “Many times, our students don’t want to go home,” says Johnson. “They know they won’t be able to communicate with their families.” (Only about 25 percent of the parents’ of deaf students know sign language, according to Johnson).
During the week, from Sunday night through Friday afternoon, students live on campus. Older students have permission to visit downtown Staunton, and a new student center features a projection screen, foosball and air hockey tables and a Wii video game system. “The social part is what many of the kids come here for,” says Johnson. In some ways, he says, that’s just as important as their academic development.