WV School Board members get behind the scenes look at deaf, blind schools

Sep 12, 2013

Some members of the West Virginia Board of Education took a tour of the Schools for the Deaf and Blind in Romney, W.Va., Wednesday. The Board’s monthly meeting took place on the campus and  prior to the

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meeting members walked through the facility to see how students are educated there and what kind of renovations are needed.

WV Board of Education Chairwoman Gayle Manchin smiles as she looks at a stuffed animal on a bed in a dorm room at the state Schools for the Deaf and Blind.
Credit Cecelia Mason

Gayle Manchin, board president, was impressed with some of the rooms she saw during the tour, commenting on how cozy they looked.

One recently renovated dorm room for younger girls in the School for the Deaf has two rows of pretty white beds lining the bright room, each draped in a hot pink spread. The tour guide was Chief Financial Officer Mark Gandolfi.

“Downstairs was renovated in the last 12 months or so, this room some new furniture and we are still looking to make cosmetic upgrades in terms of carpet, you know small things, but you can see that it’s well kept,” Gandolfi said.

“Seeing the coziness of this would have to be comforting to a parent because to leave a child that young is very a very difficult choice to make,” Manchin said. “But to kind of get that feeling of just sort of how pretty everything was for their children, that has to be very encouraging and helpful for a parent trying to make that decision.”

“It’s a very nurturing environment actually,” replied Patsy Shank, School for the Deaf principal.

“For the children and our child care staff and our teachers and all of us are very nurturing people that love these children,” Shank said. “We get to know them very well over the years, there are children they come at three and you have them until they’re 21 and they take real places in our hearts.”

Shank described how everyone on the staff helps and how, whether they are teachers, aids, cooks or janitors, they enjoy working with the children.

“And if somebody sees a child that needs something on a personal level and maybe we know there are financial difficulties, it happens, the tooth fairy has left a lot of things on beds for children over the years,” Shank said.

Shank was one of several administrators who pointed out the benefits for children who attend the schools. Benefits like learning sign language and Braille, learning to navigate with a cane, or count money when they can’t see, and being around others who are like them.

“When you’re the only deaf child in a classroom in a public school and you have no peers to associate with and to be friends with and you miss those socializations that we really have isolated that child,” Shank said.

The school board members also saw some rooms that weren’t so cozy, that can’t be used because they need renovations. The ceiling in one wing of the Deaf School is leaking and Gandolfi pointed out this section of the building needs a new roof. 

The area where multi-sensory education takes place however, is bright and new looking. Three children working in one of the classrooms have impaired hearing or sight as well as cognitive delays or other developmental issues. Three adults were working with the children as they learned the difference between circles and squares by holding and feeling the shapes.

The tour continued as the group crossed the campus to look at the dining hall, gymnasium and Seton Hall, which houses the cafeteria and dorm for older students. They also saw several buildings that are slated to be torn down; including one surrounded by orange security fencing that dates to the 1850’s and served as a Civil War hospital. For years the cafeteria was in this building but the brick work and foundation are deteriorated and it’s been deemed unsafe.

Blind students take classes in a building that’s separate from the Deaf School.  A local artist volunteered to decorate the walls in the School for the Blind with tactile artwork, large paintings with various textures that blind students, and state school board presidents, can touch.

“Isn’t that wonderful,” Manchin said as she ran her hand over one of the murals. “That would be wonderful for any school population.”

Manchin expressed an interest in learning more about the technology used in the schools, so the group visited Donna Brown’s classroom where three students, one from Inwood, W.Va., one from Fairmont, W.Va. and one from Cabell County, W.Va., were learning to use a computer called a Braille Note. It’s a portable device that allows students to read printed material in Braille.

While some board members had visited the campus before, this was the first time they’d taken a comprehensive tour.

Later during the school board meeting Superintendent Lynn Boyer gave an update on the report she’s working on that will help the Board determine whether to  keep the schools in Romney or move them to a more central location. Boyer expects the final report will lay out three options.

“One would be to remain here, the other would be to relocate but not name a location, and the third would be to disperse the services across the state,” Boyer said.

Boyer plans to present the final report during the Board of Education’s January meeting.