Even after 130 years in Vancouver, the Washington State School for the Blind and the Washington School for the Deaf are working to remain relevant. But with changing times and changing mores, it would be instructive for the Legislature to examine the usefulness of the schools that have been located just east of downtown Vancouver for more than a century.
Certainly, the mission of the schools has changed over the decades, a point that is highlighted as Dean Stenehjem prepares to retire after 26 years as superintendent at the School for the Blind. “Technology has been a game-changer,” Stenehjem told The Columbian. “Access to information plus knowledge equals empowerment.”
That long has been the idea behind the specialty schools, and the embrace of changing times is demonstrated in their statewide reach. The School for the Blind employs technology that allows students to participate in classes from hundreds of miles away. It serves students from Oregon, who pay tuition for programs no longer available in their state. And it has a program to visit students throughout Washington. “We’re a part of every school district in the state,” Stenehjem said. “We’re their resource center.” All of that in addition to serving roughly 70 middle- and high-school students on the Vancouver campus.
That is a far cry from when the territorial Legislature created the Washington School for Defective Youth to educate “deaf, blind and feeble-minded children.” Public perceptions of people with challenges have, fortunately, evolved in recent decades, with increasing attention on helping students reach their potential rather than a focus on the things that set them apart. “When kids are on our campus,” Stenehjem said, “they aren’t the blind kid; they are a student who happens to be blind. They gain a confidence in learning to get around by themselves.”
Yet that should not mitigate debate over how best to educate deaf and blind students. And it should not override the question of whether a centralized state-run school is necessary. While students once were sent to the boarding schools from all over the state, left to infrequently see their families, more and more public schools these days are providing adequate services for them. This allows students to live at home while reducing the need for state-run schools. In 2009, for example, the Oregon Legislature voted to close its School for the Blind, which had been located in Salem since 1873.
The Washington State School for the Blind is receiving $6.4 million this year from the Legislature, while the School for the Deaf is receiving $9.9 million. The services provided are essential, but the question should be whether those services could be better provided — and that money more efficiently spent — by local school districts.
There are, indeed, benefits to be found by bringing together students who face similar challenges. As Sean McCormick, principal of the School for the Blind, said: “When you put students together and remove barriers that affect them on a daily basis, they can just get to focus on learning and being kids.”
But there also is a social and cultural cost paid by students who are far from home. The state pays for students to return home each weekend, but also saves some money by not staffing dorms or providing food services on weekends.
All of that should be weighed by the Legislature. The ultimate goal must be to provide the best possible education for students, but in seeking that goal the notion of state-run boarding schools just might be outdated.