VINTON — The few students who lived at the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School this year emptied their dorm rooms Wednesday as the 150-year-old school marked the end of the year for the last time.
The stately campus will continue to be the administrative home for the statewide system that serves Iowa’s blind and visually impaired students, and occasional short-term and summer residential programs and camps will be held there.
But the traditional residential program, in which students lived on campus during the school year for academic instruction, life-skills training and social activities, came to an end this year, closing a historic chapter.
“It’s very, very sad, really,” said Kasey Domer, 18, who lived at the school this year for the fifth-year program, which teaches students life skills to make the transition after high school.
In the program, Domer, a 2010 Independence High graduate with a vision impairment, learned to cook, clean, do laundry and dishes and change broken light bulbs. He will attend AIB College of Business in Des Moines this fall to study court reporting.
“It’s really proved invaluable,” Domer said. “I feel now I have the skills to confidently live on my own in college. I couldn’t have said that before.”
Ending the residential program at the Vinton campus is part of a plan that includes seven recommendations focused on intensifying services to blind and visually impaired students around the state and offering more programs regionally. The state Board of Regents, which oversees the Braille School, approved the seven recommendations from a study committee in August.
The transition from the on-site residential school dating to 1862 to providing services to students in their home schools and communities has been an evolution years in the making, said Patrick Clancy, Braille School superintendent and director of the statewide system that serves about 500 students.
Though only five students lived at the Braille School this year, the end of the residential program is significant given the history of the school and its impact on generations of graduates, Clancy said.
“My feelings are certainly very mixed. I do believe that the time for this change is right,” he said. “But it isn’t without acknowledgment that this is a significant change.”
Of the $4.9 million in state funding to the statewide system this year, about $2.2 million was used for the Braille School residential program. The enrollment of five this year was down from 34 students in 2005.
The plan is to use much of that $2.2 million in residential program funding to hire more teachers for visually impaired students and more orientation and mobility specialists who can work in regions of the state, Clancy said. But those plans are contingent on resources, he said, as the system’s state funding for next year remains unknown and some legislative proposals call for cuts of 20 percent.
“Our inability to hire these additional people will really hamper our ability to intensify services,” Clancy said.
Leah Morrison, a Waterloo parent who fought to keep the Braille School open, thinks the statewide system should be folded into area education agencies. Since the school no longer has a residential program, Morrison argues, there is no reason the administrative umbrella can’t be absorbed into Iowa AEAs to create more cost savings that can be directed to services.
Morrison is not optimistic the end of the residential program will equal students getting better services in their home communities. Her son, Julian Herington, 17, just finished his sixth year at the Braille School and flourished there, she said. He likely will attend public high school in Waterloo next year.
“They have this enormous gift of time” at the Braille School to learn life skills, Morrison said. “It’s a huge quality difference.”
She fought tears as she talked about the changes her son faces without the Braille School.
“It’s obviously pretty emotional in terms of having tried so hard” to save the school, she said.
Morrison feels system and regents leaders circumvented the state Legislature by moving forward with the transition plan and end the residential program without legislative approval.
But Clancy and regents President David Miles said a legislative vote was not required; the study committee’s recommendations, were sent to the Iowa Legislative Council in August after regents approval, as requested. The council is a bipartisan group of lawmakers who serve as the Legislature’s steering committee between sessions.
“We really think this is the best model. A lot of time and energy has gone into moving” to a statewide system, Miles said. “Everyone is motivated by doing the right thing for the students. If we can deliver those services where they live, so they can be at home with their families, that’s better, as long as we can provide the quality of services.”
Cedar Rapids parent Sylvia Anspach hopes the end of the Braille School residential program breaks loose resources to better help students in their home schools. Anspach is not a Braille School parent; her 14-year-old son has a vision impairment and will attend Kennedy High next fall.
The teachers of visual impairment and mobility specialists that work with her son are great, but they have such limited time to spend with him because they work with other students in the region, Anspach said.“We are frustrated,” she said. “I feel for those families who’ve had their kids in residential care, I’m sure it’s very difficult for them. But for the majority of kids getting services, they’re not able to provide the services they need to in the communities.”