A School of Their Own

by B. T. Kimbrough, Salem, Oregon

In many ways, the state of Washington is just about the last place where you might expect to find a new school for blind K-12 students. After all, Vancouver, Washington, is home to a well-established, highly-respected school for the blind, which serves blind K-12 students from all over the state. And yet, a few intensely dedicated educators, parents, volunteers and blind students are quite literally breathing life into a school of their own. Their five-year-old Louis Braille School (LBS) is situated in a small red brick building in Edmonds, Washington, a suburb of Seattle.

As someone who recently witnessed the closing of a long-established school in Oregon, I was more than a little curious to pay the LBS a visit, talk with director Carolyn Meyer, and somehow find a tactful way to ask the obvious questions–how and, above all, why add a second school for the blind in a state which already has one?

The “how” part is easy–or at least simple to explain. As Director Meyer showed me through the little red schoolhouse, she could literally stop at just about every step and identify something in that square foot of building which was fixed, donated, brought up to code, or built by members of local service clubs or other volunteers. And since its opening in 2006, just about every one of those square feet has been in constant demand for the operation of the tiny but bustling school. There’s a single classroom, a small library (which doesn’t have room for all of the braille books in Director Meyer’s dreams), a small lunch area, closets full of donated musical instruments, braillers and such, and a quiet area for students who need to take a brief rest during the school day. There’s even a small office for the director, though she dreams some day of a slightly larger one with a door.

Approved by the State Board of Education for academic and special educational services ranging from kindergarten through 12th grade, the Louis Braille School now has four full-time students, including one who is a high school junior looking forward to graduating next year. All of the current students have disability issues in addition to blindness. Said Meyer, “That’s what we’re good at.”

Each of those four students represents a substantial commitment on the part of parents, since the tuition rate is a hefty $1,750 per month. That brings us back to the “why” question. What motivates parents of the Louis Braille School’s blind, low vision, and multiply challenged students to pay the freight, or struggle to require local school districts to put up some of the money, to keep these kids in this building from 8 AM until 2:45 PM every school day?

Carolyn Meyer explained that part of the answer is location. The Washington State School for the Blind is located at the southwestern end of the state, a three-to-four-hour drive from the Seattle area. Seattle residents would be residential students in the larger school, only coming home for weekends or perhaps not quite that often. The LBS offers students who live in the Seattle area an opportunity to attend their “local” school for the blind in the daytime and spend each evening at home with their families.

But location doesn’t necessarily explain everything. According to Director Meyer, three families have moved long distances in order to enroll their children in the Louis Braille School. Such moves are not unheard of, as parents in many states often find their home school districts less than fully cooperative in the free and appropriate education of their blind youngsters.

So what does LBS have to offer that brought these families down the long and winding road to this particular private school, with its hefty tuition and its lack of residential facilities? Without benefit of direct conversation with the parents (and privacy considerations render that impractical), here are some educated guesses as to the significant attractions offered by the Louis Braille School:

DEMO IN ADVANCE. Before enrolling, each prospective student spends at least one full day at the school to help him or her decide if it’s a good fit.

PERSONAL ATTENTION. The four students share a single classroom, and each student gets lots of personal attention from the teacher, who has a certification for working with blind and low vision students. In addition to the teacher, there is a classroom aide and a regular part-time volunteer.

FLEXIBLE TEACHING STYLE. The school’s website offers this statement of teaching philosophy: “If the child doesn’t learn the way we teach, we will learn to teach the way the child learns.”

LEARNING EXPERIENCES BEYOND THE CLASSROOM. There are weekly visits to a nearby store. Students are given a fixed supply of money for their independent purchases and given a chance later to practice their accounting skills, when the items are checked against the amount of money spent.

PRACTICAL ORIENTATION AND MOBILITY EXPERIENCE. The school is literally located between a McDonald’s and a pizza shop, so it’s a relatively easy matter to arrange for students to pick up their white canes and walk out into the “real world” with sighted assistance when needed.

PLENTY OF CONTACT WITH BRAILLE WHEN APPROPRIATE. This is what Carolyn Meyer told me about the importance of braille: “When a sighted person makes a comment to me like ‘braille’s obsolete because of technology,’ I say to them ‘imagine if you had no access to print–no way to write it, no way to read it–you were dependent on listening to what someone else chose to tell you, or what the computer told you. Would you accept that?’ And that generally answers the question.”

HANDS-ON CONTACT WITH ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGY. The school has five computers with screen readers. Director Meyer said that notetakers are not present yet, but that so far, equipment seems to be donated at just about the time when it is needed.

DIRECT PARTICIPATION IN PHYSICAL EDUCATION ACTIVITIES. Noting the limited space in the 2,000 square-foot building, I asked Director Meyer how this works. “We do a lot of things. Right now, one of our boys is in the process of getting signed up for a soccer team especially for challenged children. There are other programs that compliment what we do. We also have a PE period every day. They work with weights and do step aerobics and calisthenics. They run–we stretch a rope out in back, and they run along it and know it’s safe …”

As I listened to her describe what LBS offers, I didn’t get the slightest sense that Carolyn Meyer feels competitive either with the larger school for the blind down the road or the public schools. She emphasized that LBS is there to help students transition back into their public schools. As for the larger school for the blind in Vancouver, she said they compliment one another in terms of the services they offer and the locations they serve.

All this is not to say that the Louis Braille School is everything its director wants it to be. She dreams of the day when there will be a bigger building with more library space, a kitchen for teaching basic cooking skills, laundry facilities, and a bed or two for teaching housekeeping skills.

Of course, she knows these things won’t come easily. It has been her job since the school opened in 2006 to organize her seven board members and other volunteers to raise about $100,000 a year and somehow find the extra donations of time, talent, and materials that keep it all going.

I asked her if she had any advice to offer to anyone who might be thinking of putting together such a school in some other area. Without missing a beat, she said, “Be prepared to give up a few nights of sleep.” After reflecting for a moment, she added this. “Perseverance is very important–believing strongly in your cause, in the children and in your helpers. There are going to be hills and valleys as you learn what the right road is for these children. Be open-minded and flexible. Never doubt the abilities of a child–no matter how challenged she may appear to be when she comes–because inside is a whole beautiful, wonderful person just waiting to be set free.”

For more information, visit the school’s website, www.louisbrailleschool.org.