A strong commitment to specialty education is evident in a construction project at The Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Youth.
The Vancouver facility, which houses the Washington School for the Deaf, is proposing a new building for academics and physical education, a renovated parking lot and drop-off area, and a turf field for outdoor athletics. The building would serve all K-12 students, and new landscaping elements will be added as a buffer between parking lots and school facilities.
In the process, the proposal firmly answers questions about the future of the school in Vancouver, the future of the nearby Washington State School for the Blind, and the state’s approach to educating students with specific educational challenges.
This is preferable to the approach in some other states. In 2009, for example, the Oregon Legislature voted to close that state’s School for the Blind, which had been located in Salem since 1873.
Washington’s schools for deaf and blind students remain committed to their original missions, but they have evolved along with public perception of the potential in those students.
In the 1880s, the territorial Legislature created the Washington School for Defective Youth to educate “deaf, blind and feeble-minded children.” The schools were divided in 1913, and attention has turned toward what students can accomplish, rather than what sets them apart. As Dean Stenehjem, former superintendent at the School for the Blind, once said: “When kids are on our campus, 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.”
In 2016, The Columbian editorially urged the Legislature to weigh the benefits of the schools against the costs that come with them. “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,” we wrote. “This allows students to live at home while reducing the need for state-run schools.
“There are, indeed, benefits to be found by bringing together students who face similar challenges. 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.”
The Legislature has defined where the state stands on those questions. Lawmakers in 2021 approved $55.1 million for the new academic building at the School for the Deaf, and a pre-request for bids notes: “The new building will create a new center of campus. The project consolidates all grades in a single building that has purpose-designed learning environments.”
Purpose-designed learning has been particularly important throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. With comprehensive schools scrambling to adjust for remote learning, schools for deaf and blind students could more effectively cater to the needs of those students.
All of that points out the inherent worth of having state-run schools for deaf and blind children. Arguments can be made that the schools should be closed and students should attend neighborhood schools; but if the schools remain open the state must make them a priority rather than an afterthought.
Construction at the School for the Deaf indicates that Washington is taking the right approach.