The End in Sight

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In an era of mainstreaming, the future looks uncertain for a respected school for the blind in Wisconsin.

Janesville, Wis.

Just inside the school's front door are the trophies. Rows and rows of them, enclosed in a glass case, won at swimming, track, wrestling, and cheerleading meets. Trophies of sleek, golden athletes, posing with bravado on stands embossed with the school's name:

The Wisconsin School for the Visually Handicapped.

"If I were in a regular public school, I'd never get to be on the track team," says 13-year-old Abby Swatek, who is legally blind yet placed second in the 600-meter in an interstate competition last year. She smiles through her braces.

"Oh man, it was awesome having all the people cheer you on," she recalls.

Photo Essay

The K-12 school's fervent commitment to physical education--evidenced by its indoor track and four-lane pool--is one of many ways it offers blind students opportunities they might not find in regular public schools. Managed and financed by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the school about 80 miles southwest of Milwaukee enrolls visually impaired children from across this mostly rural state.

But after nearly a century and a half of teaching everything from fractions to grocery shopping, this vestige of a fading tradition in educating the blind may soon close its doors.

State officials say it's for the best.

State Superintendent John T. Benson and Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson have recommended the school's closing, pointing to reasons of both economics and special education policy.

They cite spiraling costs, largely because of an all-time low enrollment. The school still has to heat its 10 buildings, for example, whether they house 61 students, as they do now, or 183 students, as they did during the school's peak enrollment in 1967.

This year, the state will spend more than $70,000 to educate, house, and feed each student at the school. In contrast, the state spends about $20,000 for each blind student enrolled in her or his home district.

"Clearly, the most cost-effective way is for the district to provide its own services," says Paul Halverson, the state's director of exceptional education.

Special education policy also points in that direction. Since 1975, when a federal law on educating disabled children was passed, federal and state officials have encouraged schools to place disabled children in regular classes as much as possible. Advocates of "mainstreaming" or "inclusion" argue that youngsters with disabilities need to learn how to survive in a regular environment, and that other children need to learn how to get along in a diverse environment.

"If children with visual disabilities are to learn how to function in a sighted world, they need to be educated in a sighted world and be surrounded by people who represent society's makeup," Halverson says.

State officials say closing the Janesville school will allow them to spread $3.6 million, about half of the school's budget, among the students' home districts to beef up their special education programs. The rest of the budget would be used to pay for a summer school program, expand outreach services, and produce Braille and large-print books.

From Monday through Friday, most students here sleep in one of two dormitories on the campus, a collection of squat, tan-brick buildings built in the 1950s and 1960s. Janesville, the surrounding community, is a working-class town, population 58,000, where the biggest employer is a General Motors plant. The school's students go home by car, bus, and even airplane on the weekends, at the expense of their local districts.

"We'd rather allow kids to stay with their families," says Greg Doyle, the spokesman for the state education department. "We're pretty strong proponents of placing children in the least restrictive environment. This facility is the most restrictive."

Doyle's comment refers to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that stipulates that children with disabilities are entitled to a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.

State officials say such an environment is possible for the school's students outside of Janesville, insisting that they are no more disabled than the 1,100 visually impaired students now enrolled in their home districts. And proponents of the closing note that most of the school's students come from the southeastern and most populated part of the state, which has the most special education resources.

"The facility has outlived its usefulness," Doyle says. "We believe we can provide comparable services and better spend the money on existing programs or new ones."

But even he acknowledges that the quality of services for visually impaired students varies from district to district, depending on size, resources, and individual teachers' and administrators' commitment to special education. Here, one-third of the staff has been at the school for at least 20 years, and all the teachers have certificates in working with visually impaired children. Class sizes for academic subjects range from two to seven students.

"Are students likely to find themselves in situations where they are getting less individual attention? I suppose that's possible," Doyle says.

Children with vision and hearing problems were the first disabled students to receive specialized education programs. The nation's first state-run school for blind children opened in Ohio in 1837. The Wisconsin school opened 12 years later.

Today, there are roughly 45 schools in the country that focus on education for the blind, the vast majority of which are supported by tax dollars, according to a recent study by the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, based in Alexandria, Va.

Denise Rozell, the association's executive director, says it is important to remember legal mandates for educating children with disabilities.

"Federal law says every child is supposed to get what every child needs," Rozell says. "Without knowing the [Wisconsin] kids, I'm sure some of them are in the school because their local districts could not serve them appropriately. Children with disabilities are individuals, and each is entitled to an individualized education program."

Michael J. Bina, the superintendent at the Indiana School for the Blind in Indianapolis and a former teacher at the Janesville, Wis., school, says it's one of the best. "It's like going to the Mayo Clinic," he says.

But these specialized schools educate only about 7 percent of blind students, a small fraction of their share of such students 50 years ago. The vast majority of visually impaired children attend schools near their homes, where they may spend part of the day in regular classes and the rest of the day in special education.

As a result, many specialized schools are struggling to maintain funding and enrollment. For example, Nebraska's School for the Deaf, located in Omaha, has seen its enrollment plunge from 200 to 31 students and is also slated to close this year.

Today, there are roughly 45 schools in the country that focus on education for the blind, the vast majority of which are supported by tax dollars.

Compounding the challenges of educating the blind is a nationwide shortage of trained teachers, partly due to the low incidence of blindness in comparison to more common speech and learning disabilities. Wisconsin does not even have a teacher training program in visual impairment.

"I'm worried about how Wisconsin is going to meet the needs of blind children, who, in addition to developing literacy and academic skills, need help with daily living skills," says Donna L. McNear, president of the visual impairment division of the Council for Exceptional Children, a professional organization based in Reston, Va.

Tom Hanson is one of the 10 teachers at the school with visual disabilities of their own. They make up one-tenth of the staff and serve as powerful role models for the blind students, several of whom mentioned that they'd like to work at the school someday.

The 52-year-old vocational educational teacher points out the school's unusual sights and sounds: a Braille dictionary that takes up 72 thick volumes; the tap-tap-tap of white canes up and down the halls after the bell rings; a tape-recorded voice telling the story of Paul Bunyan for transfer to a large-print or Braille book.

The school boasts technology that can translate printed material to Braille, and vice versa. Those programs are particularly useful in cases where large-print and Braille textbooks--which can cost as much as $1,000--are not widely available. Some children carry small computers to class that allow them to take notes in Braille and even draw graphs.

On a recent tour of the school, Hanson stops in an ungraded classroom for children with multiple disabilities, including cerebral palsy, cognitive disorders, and speech impairments. "I'm not sure the local school districts can duplicate what they have here," he says.

Twelve-year-old Josh Beder presses his thick glasses against a keyboard in order to distinguish letters. "This is Sssssssssimon," says the friendly boy, introducing the computer. A computer-synthesized voice says, "sail" and an image of a sail appears on the screen. The voice sounds out each letter of the word as Josh types it in: phonics for the blind.

Alexis Horne, a 10-year-old quadriplegic, learns to form sentences with a special keyboard that has large buttons, one word on each. "The ... girl ... can ... run," she types with difficulty. A Winnie-the-Pooh backpack is strapped to her wheelchair.

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This story incorrectly states that Gov. Tommy G. Thompson had recommended the closing of the Wisconsin School for the Visually Handicapped. The governor has not taken a public position on the proposed closing.

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