A groundbreaking last week for new facilities at the Washington School for the Deaf in Vancouver represents a strong investment from the state and a firm belief in the unique value provided by the specialty school.
Over the past 25 years or so, several state-run schools catering to deaf students have closed, including in Nebraska, Wyoming, South Dakota, Virginia and North Carolina.
One reason is continued pressure on state education budgets. Another is that local school districts increasingly are able to provide necessary services, allowing students to remain close to home rather than attending a boarding school. And still another is that the purpose of schools for deaf children has been altered.
In 1886, when Washington’s territorial Legislature created what is now the school for the deaf, it was the Washington School for Defective Youth and had the purpose of educating “deaf, blind and feeble-minded children.” Public perceptions of people with challenges have, fortunately, evolved since then, with attention placed on helping students reach their potential rather than on the things that set them apart.
Still, there are questions about the best ways to serve students who have unique challenges. The Washington State School for the Blind also is in Vancouver, just blocks from the school for the deaf, and in 2016 The Columbian editorially urged lawmakers to assess the need for the facilities.
“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 Editorial Board wrote. “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best possible education for students, but in seeking that goal the notion of state-run boarding schools just might be outdated.”
Last week’s groundbreaking at the school for the deaf provides a firm rebuttal to that suggestion. Most important, it goes beyond tepid support and reflects a commitment to the school.
Often, political bodies provide lip service to an idea in order to avoid criticism, but then fail to fully commit to that idea. The result is that a public facility withers on the vine while elected officials shrug and insist they support it.
That is not the case with the Washington School for the Deaf. Last week, officials ceremonially broke ground on the school’s first expansion in decades. The project will create a new 35,000-square-foot academic building and a 15,000-square-foot gym. It also will add an outdoor field and a revamped parking area. The new amenities are expected to be open to students — there currently are about 120 in K-12 — in time for the 2024-2025 school year.
As one dignitary said: “This is a journey that will shape the future of our deaf and hard-of-hearing students. More than just a new building, but a celebration of breaking barriers and limitations for the deaf community.”
The Legislature this year approved $15.4 million in the state’s capital budget for construction projects at the school for the deaf. Another $2.1 million was allocated for small projects at the school for the blind.
Those investments are important. If the people of Washington believe that specialty schools play a role in effectively serving deaf and blind students from throughout the state, it is crucial for them to invest in those schools.
Public education, after all, is the Legislature’s paramount duty in Washington.