The End in Sight

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"I could not meet their needs, and I felt guilty all the time. It made me heartsick to know what they could be getting at this school."

Mary Tellefson,
mobility teacher

In a nearby room, Dan Groll is hoisting himself onto a waterbed mattress using a rope attached to the ceiling. "I'm one of the strongest people in the school!" the 9-year-old declares. The room also contains oversized tires and balls that children climb on to strengthen muscles and work on balance. "If it's not fun, kids won't do it," says physical therapist Jeanne Appleton.

Physical therapy and classes on getting from one place to another are a major part of the curriculum here. Mobility teacher Mary Tellefson, wearing a bright purple sweatshirt and Reebok sneakers, excitedly explains how she teaches students to take the bus, find an address, and cross streets by listening to the traffic. Once a year, she leaves six to eight high school students at a time at the state Capitol building in Madison and asks them to meet her at a certain store in a nearby mall. "If you can't get to your job, it doesn't matter if you can get one," she says.

Two years ago, after teaching at the school for 16 years, Tellefson tried working for the Janesville school district for eight weeks. She was responsible for teaching mobility to 19 blind students at seven schools.

"I could not meet their needs, and I felt guilty all the time," says Tellefson, a pert 41-year-old who wears her blond hair in a bob. "It made me heartsick to know what they could be getting at this school."

The Janesville school isn't closing without a fight. A lawsuit, tearful pleas from parents and teachers, and a bill introduced last fall seek to preserve the oldest public institution in Wisconsin.

Two legislators who represent the Janesville area are sponsoring a bill to study the potential impact of the school's closing. "I don't think we should pull the plug before we know what possible future the school could have," says Republican Sen. Timothy L. Weeden, who is co-sponsoring the bill with Democratic Rep. Wayne W. Wood.

Wood says he is confident that a review of the school by a legislative council--a group of at least 13 lawmakers and members of the public--will start this summer. The council's report would be submitted, in bill form, to lawmakers when they reconvene next January. Wood also notes that the bill to shut the school down is stuck in committee and unlikely to reach the floor before the legislative session ends this month.

A survey requested by Mr. Wood and Mr. Weeden in December found that about 30 percent of the families with blind children enrolled in school districts did not know about the school. Of 1,100 families, 321 responded to the survey.

That poll is being cited by the Wisconsin Council of the Blind, a Madison-based nonprofit group, as evidence that state officials have not fulfilled their duty to give blind children the option of going to the boarding school. This argument is made in the council's lawsuit seeking to keep the school open and on the group's World Wide Web page titled, "Save Our School."

Last week, the council asserted that the school was certain to remain open for another year. The council says it will not drop its lawsuit, however.

Mark Karstedt, the council's spokesman, also notes that the superintendent hired last fall is only at the school three days a week and doesn't live on campus, as previous administrators have. The principal, who is also new, works full time. "The state has thrown up their hands when it comes to this school," he contends.

Joining the council as plaintiffs in the suit are Eric and Christine Fredrickson, whose 12-year-old son, Benjamin, has attended the school since kindergarten. The boy would be the only blind student in his home district of Necedah, a rural community with only 700 residents.

"Sending him off on a bus when he was 5 years old was very difficult, but I'm happy to say that we made the right decision," Fredrickson says. "Every year, he makes new gains and accomplishments."

Fredrickson was one of several parents who testified at a public hearing in Madison in December. Another parent, Shelly Lauer, told lawmakers she may home school her son if the boarding school closes.

Lauer remembers talking with a special education director in her hometown of Neenah about her 9th grade son's love of the Janesville school's CCTVs--closed circuit televisions that greatly magnify printed materials. "They didn't know what I was talking about," she recalls. "The equipment is not there. The knowledge is not there."

Two years ago, Lauer pulled Nicholas out of the regular public schools, where she says his physical limitations were misconstrued as bad behavior. Even though his limited sight allows him to read darkly printed letters on white paper, teachers sometimes sent home lightly printed copies or homework on colored paper. Other students teased that his bulky, large-print texts were "baby books."

At the Janesville school, he was taught how to use a cane--a tool as necessary as oxygen for the blind. Nicholas also overcame his embarrassment over large-print books and other special equipment, since all the other children used them, too.

"Nicholas feels like an equal here," Lauer says. "I see such a difference in him. He smiles. He talks about his friends. He's doing sports. He's the boy I remember from before. I can't thank that school enough for giving him his life back."

On a recent winter morning at the school, two little blind girls are learning to swim. Amid the steam of the heated pool and the pungent smell of chlorine, neither is eager to get into the water. Physical education teacher John Sonka persists, asking the girls to "try one more time." Once she gets wet, blond-haired Stacey Novak, 6, is clearly terrified, clinging to the wall and chanting "Get out!" through chattering teeth and tears.

But dark-haired Karissa Kroncich, 10, eventually lets go of the wall and her fears, giggling and paddling the whole length of the pool.

"All their lives, these kids have been told, 'Sit down. You're going to get hurt,'" says Sonka, an indefatigable 53-year-old who has worked at the school since 1971. "We have so much to offer them."

Just as blindness doesn't stop students here from playing sports, it doesn't prevent them from making music. In a room the size of a walk-in closet, music teacher Philip Tyrrell is following along as 12th grader Karisa Lietz labors to play "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the saxophone. Tyrrell says the biggest challenge is for the students who read Braille music because they have to memorize the notes since they can't feel the raised dots and play an instrument at the same time. The white-haired 63-year-old is the unofficial school dean, with 40 years' experience.

"You hear the notes in your mind, more than you see them," he says.

After school, some children who live nearby go home, though most retire to quiet, half-empty dorms. The accommodations are uncommonly nice for a public institution: large bedrooms, carpeted living areas with big television sets, couches, computers, and exercise equipment, and a recreation room with pinball machines, a pool table, a jukebox, and soda machines.

Just as blindness doesn't stop students here from playing sports, it doesn't prevent them from making music.

A spirited game of bingo is going on in the boys' living area, while in the rec room, two girls discuss dorm life over a soda and a bag of pretzels.

"Sometimes, the houseparents are really strict," says 13-year-old Chelsea Reilly, who has a crush on one of the older boys.

"Yeah, you want to go visit the boys, but you can't," adds dark-haired Xio Mara Ramos, who is 17 and goes by her middle name.

The typical adolescent patter belies the fact that many of the students here have been through unusually rough times at tender years.

Ramos, an 11th grader, has had seven surgeries in the past year to try to correct her vision. Amy Snow, a studious senior with flaming-red hair, is learning Braille now, knowing that she is likely to lose what little sight she has left because of glaucoma. Jay Scherer, a senior, says he was put into a class for the learning-disabled when he was in a regular middle school, even though his problems were limited to poor vision.

"I'd probably be a dropout if I stayed there," he says. "Just because I have a vision problem doesn't mean I'm messed up in the head."

The school offers a solid support network. Several of the older students mentor the younger ones, pointing them in the right direction down the hallway or helping with homework.

"Once, I was upset about my vision and needed someone to talk to." Lietz recalls. "I had 50 people to talk to. The people here understand."

Ruben Rodriguez, a husky 11th grader with long blond hair, recalls how he used to skip school and act up in class when he was in middle school in Milwaukee. This year, he is the Janesville school's student council president.

But the 17-year-old says he's ready to spend his senior year back home.

"I want to put my feet back in the water," he says. "I'd also like to play different sports than the ones here. Maybe football."

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