THE EVOLUTION OF SCHOOLS FOR THE BLIND
IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Phil Hatlen, Superintendent
Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired
In the U.S., as most of you know, inclusion had its serious beginnings in the 1950s. By the end of the 1970s, it was firmly established as the most popular, most desirable educational placement for many blind and visually impaired children. This did not happen easily, and many serious conflicts caused what should have been an exciting, wonderful era in our history to be less than joyful. Most significant among these conflicts was that schools for the blind were left out of the movement toward inclusion; in fact, they were often thought to be inhibitors of inclusion. The result was years of suspicion, hostility, turf wars, and less than adequate attention paid to the individual needs of children.
Even today, in the U.S., there are children who are receiving inadequate services, not because the services are not available, but because they are the victims of mis-guided philosophic differences. This applies equally to blind and visually impaired students in schools for the blind and in local schools.
.“Evolution” implies a gradual, steady movement. This is what has happened to schools for the blind in the U.S. Before the second half of the 20th century, these schools were havens of the elite blind. Children with no additional disabilities were far in the majority, and academic programs were offered that were at least as good, and often better, than non-disabled students received in regular schools. Through most of the second half of the 20th century, there was significant upheaval in schools for the blind. As you know, and as we should have expected, most parents of blind children with no additional disabilities strongly preferred regular school enrollment for their child. This movement left many schools for the blind with rapidly diminishing populations.
However, as we became more sophisticated at diagnosing visual impairment, and as we gradually began to recognize our responsibility to visually impaired students with additional disabilities, many of the spaces vacant in schools for the blind were soon filled by a very complex, challenging population. I will not enter into a dialog with you at this time as to whether this was a good move for schools for the blind. I will state that, in my opinion, every child with a visual impairment, regardless of additional disabilities, benefits from educational services that address the visual impairment.
Unfortunately, we work in a profession that, when the pendulum swings, it doesn’t stop in the middle, it goes to the polar side. First, the popular thing to do was to place your child in a school for the blind. Then the pendulum swung, and the place for most, if not all, blind and visually impaired children was in regular schools. Many of us in the U.S. viewed as our professional responsibility to try to move that pendulum toward the middle. And, my friends, it is happening. This is why there is a serious evolution of schools for the blind in the U.S. at this time.
Beginning in the mid-1970s, it was my privilege to discuss the emerging role of schools for the blind in England, Germany, Australia, and Japan. Without exception, my worst fears were true. In other countries with growing emphasis on inclusion, there was tension building between schools for the blind and advocates for regular school placement. In all instances, my message to colleagues throughout the world in schools for the blind was consistent. “Don’t fight inclusion”, I stated. “It is inevitable. Rather, embrace inclusion, and find positive ways in which you can encourage and support it. There is no reason that the champions of inclusion cannot be leaders in schools for the blind”. I wish I knew how seriously this message was received, but to this day I don’t.
Perhaps there are three groups of us professionals. First, there is a vocal, but diminishing group who believe that all blind children should attend schools for the blind. Then there is an equally vocal group, who find themselves on the side of political correctness, who advocate for regular school placement for all visually impaired children. Then there is a third group, one that sees values in all placement options, and believes that services should match the needs of students. This third group has no political agenda. It simply believes that, for every blind and visually impaired child, there is an appropriate program, based on the individual needs of each child. Needs may change through the years, and often this means that placement should change. Now, I am certain that all of us in this room belong to this third group.
I should add that my “third group” has two fundamental beliefs:
1. Regardless of placement, all visually impaired children need a qualified teacher of the visually impaired who can meet their special needs.
2. The expanded core curriculum needs of visually impaired children must be considered when planning educational services.
In order to accept my thesis regarding schools for the blind, you must understand certain fundamental beliefs that I have:
1. Schools for the blind are centers for the most experienced most expert professionals in education of the visually impaired.
2. The school for the blind should be the “hub” of educational services for blind and visually impaired children, regardless of where they go to school.
But it’s not my purpose today to provide a history lesson. Rather, I want to present to you one approach to addressing the unique, individual needs of each blind and visually impaired child. And we cannot do that unless we have an array of service delivery options
It is the professional responsibility of a school for the blind to share its expertise wherever it is needed. In order to truly share, there must be a significant shift of resources. In two of the United States, the schools have changed their names. The Wisconsin School for the Visually Handicapped is now The Wisconsin Center for the Education of the Visually Impaired. The same change has happened in Nebraska. In that state, the school for the blind was mandated by their legislature to take a significant role in the education of all visually impaired students in Nebraska.
This constitutes a significant evolution. While schools for the blind continue to serve children in a residential school, they are discovering ways in which they can enrich the education of all such children in regular schools. Let me tell you how one school is evolving—The Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI).
First, TSBVI remains committed to an on-campus educational program that offers either day or residential placement for as long as the child needs. These are a few of the advantages of such a program:
TSBVI currently has programs in place, with highly skilled and experienced staff to provide educational experiences, that include:
1. Individualized academic, applied, and practical curriculum
Small classes with opportunities for tutorial help
Courses offered at a local high school
Instruction in practical academics
Educational experiences especially designed for students at several levels (basic skills, early concepts, practical academics, applied academics, academic)
2. Career education
Community-based enclave work experience
Paid work experience in basic jobs
Work experience, job training, supported employment
Courses in introduction to work
Success in small classes with individualized curriculum
Opportunities to succeed in music, sports, art, and drama
Individual and small group counseling
A staff trained in understanding the dynamics of vision loss
4. Extra-curricular activities
Sports, including track, wrestling, and swimming
Music, vocal and instrumental
Arts and crafts
Field trips throughout greater Austin
5. Education for challenging students
Skills infused in daily curriculum
Communication systems, language, behavior, and experience-based instruction stressed
Community-based work experience
6. Summer Programs
Social opportunities with other students with visual impairment
Specific instruction in Braille, abacus, orientation and mobility, career education, and technology
7. Short classes
Provided during the regular school year
Intensive instructional experience with only a short time away from home
Teach disability-specific skills that are pre-requisite to success in the regular classroom
Provide individualized instruction to meet specific learning needs of academic students
Provide temporary removal of multiple demands experienced in local schools
Address learning gaps caused by instructional overload
Provide opportunity for professional collaboration regarding the individual needs of students
This list provides you with some idea about what TSBVI continues to offer to students in their on-campus, residential program. There are two movements of note in the evolution of this program. First, it is rare for a student to stay at TSBVI for more than three years. When a student is admitted to TSBVI, the local school district is informed that we will provide specific services based on needs that they have identified. When those needs are met, it is our intention to transition the student back to her local school. Second, please note that there is little reference to academic subjects in the list of services above. This is because local schools have become quite good at adapting and offering appropriate academic subjects. Reasons for referral to TSBVI are almost always for educational needs that are not related to academic courses.
However, over time it has become clear to many professionals that there are some academic subjects that are particularly difficult for braille-reading students. These are science, mathematics, and geography. Much of the learning material for these subjects are in spatial format, and braille is most efficient when read in a linear manner. TSBVI is beginning to offer algebra, geometry, biology, general science, and geography for students from local schools who cannot get these classes in an accessible manner in their local school district.
Now, what about the ways in which TSBVI is a state-wide resource? Remember, I believe that, because of the expertise of staff at a school for the blind, these educational institutions should be the center, or “hub” of services to all students in their geographic area. For TSBVI, this means the entire state of Texas. While normal school-year enrollment at TSBVI is about 150 students, there are another 6,500 visually impaired students in the state. TSBVI believes, and the state legislature agrees, that it has some degree of responsibility for all of the blind and visually impaired students in Texas.
The following chart illustrates new programs at TSBVI. They do not detract from the fundamental role of the school, that of a residential school for the blind. Rather, they add to the vital and effective role of the school in sharing expertise with all regular schools in the state:
Residential School Post-Secondary Short-Term Classes Facilitation
of Teacher Prep Outreach Statewide
Staff Development Statewide
Public Awareness Research & Development Curriculum Development Instructional Materials
Center Website www.tsbvi.edu Statewide
Student Registration Statewide
Systems & Standards for VI Students Summer School
Facilitation of Teacher Prep
Statewide Systems & Standards for VI Students
The boxes around the periphery of this diagram will be explained in more detail during my presentation at the ICEVI Convention. I will provide just a few sentences now for each box that help explain why TSBVI has become a vital state-wide resource for all blind and visually impaired students in Texas.
Beginning in September, 2002, TSBVI will offer a collaborative program with our state rehabilitation agency for high school graduates. Young people who have spent their entire school lives in regular schools will have first priority, because it is often very difficult for local schools to offer instruction in non-academic areas, such as living skills, social skills, career education, assistive technology, etc. This may not be a new idea in Europe, but it is in the U.S.
Each year TSBVI offers enrichment classes for students who spend the academic year in their local schools. Usually about 300 students are served.
With the assistance of an outside consultant, TSBVI has developed “Quality Programs for the Visually Impaired” (QPVI), a system that local school use to determine the effectiveness of their programs for blind and visually impaired students.
TSBVI’s Curriculum Department works with the entire school to determine the need for new curriculum guides. These are developed first for the teachers at TSBVI, secondarily for teachers throughout Texas, and finally for the entire world. We have been blessed by having some of the best writers of curriculum in the U.S.
TSBVI welcomes external researchers who have worthwhile projects and need students and/or staff as subjects. Internal research and development is continual through the Curriculum Department.
Ten years ago the Texas Education Agency asked TSBVI to take responsibility for the identification and registration for all blind and visually impaired students in the state.
The TSBVI website began as a project to share information and resources statewide. Now www.tsbvi.edu has become a world-wide resource.
In its efforts to act as a statewide resource, TSBVI is now the distributor of instructional materials for all educational services in Texas.
TSBVI recognizes and accepts its role in sharing with all citizens of Texas the accomplishments and the capability of blind and visually impaired persons.
TSBVI provides professional development for all teachers in the state, including those in local schools, as well as those at the school.
The Outreach Department at TSBVI is well-known throughout the U.S. as a model in providing technical assistance to students, teachers, parents, and administrators. There are two teams in the Outreach Department. One specializes in visual impairment, and the other in services for deafblind students.
Texas, like all states in the U.S., has suffered from a chronic shortage of teachers for visually impaired students, and orientation and mobility instructors. In response to this problem, the Texas State Legislature designated TSBVI as the lead agency in facilitating efforts to minimize the shortage of teachers. TSBVI contracts with universities in the state in order to accomplish this. Also, TSBVI has developed a mentor program for new teachers that is excellent.
TSBVI did not originate the idea of providing short-term classes during the school year, but we have improved and expanded the concept. Students enrolled in local schools have the opportunity to come to the TSBVI campus for a short time (two days to one week) and receive intensive instruction in a particular area. By providing some tutorial help during the student’s time at TSBVI, we can assure local school districts that the student will not fall behind in classes taken in the regular school.
I would like to emphasize to you that none of these outside boxes existed 15 years ago. TSBVI did not assume these responsibilities in order to survive. Rather, TSBVI carefully analyzed the current status of education for blind and visually impaired students, attempted to project into the future, and developed programs designed to provide every child in Texas an equal opportunity to education. If TSBVI does not accept this challenge, who will?
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