[nfbwatlk] Oregon legislature ensures closure of school for the blind (Oregonian 6-10-2009)

Nightingale, Noel Noel.Nightingale at ed.gov
Fri Jun 12 20:40:24 UTC 2009

Breaking News Impact - The Oregonian - OregonLive.com
Vote closes Oregon School for the Blind
Posted by Betsy Hammond, The Oregonian June 10, 2009 11:59AM
[http://blog.oregonlive.com/news_impact/2009/06/large_OSBdorm.jpg]<http://blog.oregonlive.com/news_impact/2009/06/OSBdorm.jpg>Thomas Boyd/The OregonianA student climbs the stairs to his dorm room at the Oregon School for the Blind in Salem.

The Oregon Senate sealed the fate of the state's 135-year-old school for the blind Wednesday, voting 20-8 to close the Salem boarding school this summer and return its students to their local schools.

The House had already voted to close the school, and Gov. Ted Kulongoski says he will sign the decision into law.

The 24 students who would have returned to the Oregon School for the Blind this fall, most of whom are ages 16 to 20, will instead attend their local public schools. The bill says they must receive "substantially equivalent" services as those they received at the state school.

More than $3 million that would otherwise have been spent operating the boarding school will be used to help educate those 24 students and to improve services to the other 800 blind and visually impaired students already being served in their local schools.

House Education Chairwoman Rep. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, an advocate for disabled students, spearheaded efforts to close the school.

She said the students should be educated in their hometowns and live with their families. She also decried the lack of core academic classes at the state school, which lost its accreditation in the early 1990s. And she said the high cost per student -- more than $125,000 a year -- represented a lack of equity between blind students at the boarding school and those educated in hometown schools.

The school's physical plant, which includes a dorm, a gym and nine other buildings, is dilapidated, and the state hasn't spent the millions it would take to bring it up to code. Enrollment at the school has dropped to 32 students from its high of 118 in 1964, before the federal government mandated that disabled students be served in the least restrictive setting possible.

"Closing this school wrenches at your heart ... but I believe in the bottom of my heart that mainstreaming is best for the visually impaired," said Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton.

Parents, teachers and members of groups that advocate for the blind decried the decision to close the school. They testified how visually impaired students have been poorly served in local schools that areill-equipped to help them -- stories that Gelser said are true.

Visually impaired students have such specialized learning needs that few school districts can meet their needs, in large part because they lack trained teachers, champions of the school say. Education at the Salem school stretched more than 12 hours a day, with students learning to navigate with a cane and master life skills such as cooking and laundry after classes ended at 3 p.m.

Most of the students who attend Oregon School for the Blind will be the only blind or visually impaired student in their local school.

Kathy O'Malley met recently with officials in the North Clackamas School District to discuss their plans to educate her 17-year-old daughter, Kelsey, who had a miserable experience at Clackamas High before transferring to the Oregon School for the Blind two years ago.

O'Malley says she doesn't trust their assurances that things will be better this time for Kelsey, who has cognitive delays, limited speech and a genetic disorder that caused her to lose her peripheral vision beginning when she was 8.

O'Malley says she will push for Kelsey to attend the state school for the blind in Washington, where space is limited, or in Idaho. The district would have to pay for her education at the Idaho school plus weekly plane trips home from the school to match the weekends she spends at home now, she said.

Clackamas High officials want to place her in a special education classroom with a teacher who has never taught a visually impaired student and where the other students all can see fine, O'Malley says. They say the teacher will get more coaching and support from an expert teacher of the visually impaired, thanks to the $3 million in new funding.

But O'Malley said she and other parents with children at the School for the Blind find it "obvious that, contrary to how everybody in Salem thinks this is miraculously going to work out, that the districts remain clueless.

"Our kids will get lost in the shuffle. They will be sent back to the same school districts that were not able to provide the services for them," she said.

-- Betsy Hammond; betsyhammond at news.oregonian.com<mailto:betsyhammond at news.oregonian.com>

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