October 2002 • Volume 96Number 10

Speaker's Corner

The Most Difficult Decision: How to Share Responsibility Between Local Schools and Schools for the Blind

Equality for women has taken many years and required both legislation and changes in attitudes. Equality for racial and ethnic minorities is a continuing issue, and has been facilitated by legislation and changes in society. Equality for persons with disabilities has become a greater reality because of IDEA and ADA. I believe that the expanded core curriculum (including instruction in social skills and independent living skills, such as grooming and cooking) has the potential to increase equality by releasing blind and visually impaired students from a state of dependency to a level of independence that they have not yet achieved. Yet this potential is not being realized. One reason may be that teachers still do not have enough information. I attended a state conference recently and heard two excellent presentations—one on social skills and the other on independent living skills. Even though the audiences were experienced teachers of visually impaired students, many of them indicated that this was the first solid information they ever received on topics included in the expanded core curriculum. Yet the core curriculum is not a new idea. In fact, at the end of the second presentation, I thought: “I gave that same presentation in 1972—30 years ago.”

A more compelling reason why the core curriculum is not being implemented is that teachers in local districts cannot add more to their workloads. I wonder if, as we have further defined and expanded the job of a teacher of visually impaired students, we have reached the point at which the job is impossible to do. Should we reconsider the level of responsibility teachers of visually impaired students have for teaching the expanded core curriculum? But if the local teachers don’t do it, then who will?

I propose that the solution to having time to teach the expanded core curriculum is to form partnerships with schools for the blind, as one parent suggested to me several years ago. “I have chosen the local school for my visually impaired child,” she said, “but I know that it cannot meet all his educational needs. I want you to provide the opportunity for him to move back and forth, as needed, between the school for the blind and the local district.”

This parent stopped me in my tracks, and I have thought often about that conversation over the years, although I did nothing about it then. Recently a friend of mine at another school for the blind called me. He had read an article in JVIB that documented the difficulty that teachers have in finding time to teach the expanded core curriculum. The article also implied that schools for the blind are being more successful in finding time to teach these areas of learning. The more I thought about this and my years-old conversation with the parent, the more excited I have become about the potential for a new model.

For this model to work effectively, we will have to develop a level of trust and honesty between local districts and schools for the blind that I fear does not exist today. Local schools have to admit that they need help in the education of visually impaired children. Schools for the blind have to admit that there are many things that local schools can do better than they can, and that a true partnership, based on the strengths of each program, needs to be developed.

The key is to comprehensively and honestly assess every visually impaired student, determine needs, and provide a placement to meet the needs. Comprehensive assessment means that every area of adaptive learning and of the expanded core curriculum is assessed. If “comprehensive” is to include every area of the expanded core curriculum, then I fear that there are few true comprehensive assessments being completed. Responsibility for a comprehensive assessment should be shared by local schools and schools for the blind.

The outcome of a comprehensive assessment is likely, in most cases, to illustrate a wide range of needs for most visually impaired students. But when and how should these needs be met? Perhaps most important, what will be the frequency and duration of instruction from the teacher of visually impaired students?

For local school districts and schools for the blind, this is where the rubber meets the road. For a beginning braille reader, will the teacher of visually impaired students provide reading and writing instruction for two hours a day? If not, should the school for the blind be considered for a 6-year-old? Should this decision depend on how often the child can return home? Or if instruction in assistive technology is a need, what will be its frequency and duration? The list of questions goes on, through the entire expanded core curriculum.

I fear we have been settling for something less than excellence. I have often told parents that, when they opt for local school placement, knowing that the teacher for visually impaired students will be at their blind child’s school only an hour every week, they have made a trade-off. They have decided that having their child at home and attending the local school full-time is a higher priority than having their child learn to read. What I want is for the local district to tell the parents this, too. All too often, the local district will suggest that their child will learn to read and write braille with one hour a week of instruction. Such comments are intellectually dishonest, and I ask that local school districts admit their shortcomings in meeting some of the intensive needs of blind and visually impaired students.

This need for honesty also includes schools for the blind. Schools for the blind cannot offer education with sighted peers, they constantly run the risk of accepting behavior that would not be condoned in general society, and they also run the risk of not maintaining high standards for students.

Local schools must admit to what they cannot do. Local schools must stop using teacher assistants in place of teachers. Local schools must either accept responsibility for, and necessity of, teaching the expanded core curriculum or consider other ways to meet this critical need, including using schools for the blind. Local schools must work harder to develop strong self-esteem in visually impaired students. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to collaboration between local schools and schools for the blind is the prevailing opinion among many parents and educators that a school for the blind is the placement of last resort.

In my opinion, a major flaw in our philosophy and approach to education for visually impaired students is that there is one system that has primary responsibility for the education of each child. I am suggesting that we abandon this position and explore how we might better meet all the needs of every individual child by having two systems share primary responsibility for the child. Consider the load taken off teachers of visually impaired students in local districts. Think of the advantages to many, many children in making available to them the expertise of the staff at schools for the blind. Likewise, think of the advantages that local school education offers to students who might otherwise be destined to spend all of their school years at a school for the blind. Such a partnership will need to work both ways. Of course, there will be students for whom continuous attendance at a school for the blind will be most appropriate, and there will be students who spend their entire educational lives attending their local school.

My fervent hope for the future is that all decisions regarding delivery of educational services to visually impaired students will consist of informed decisions made mutually by parents, local districts, and schools for the blind. Can you imagine a meeting of these representatives of a student, all informed advocates, where short- and long-term decisions will be made regarding placement? As soon as appropriate, the student will join this team, and together this group will plan the student’s future education.

How will we develop a system of education that recognizes the validity and contributions that both local schools and schools for the blind have to offer? Remember how long women’s suffrage has taken? If we consider the mastery by students of the expanded core curriculum to be the equivalent of the civil rights movement or the impact of ADA, then we must continue to strongly advocate for its teaching. To accomplish the kind of change I envision will be equally difficult, frustrating, heartbreaking, rewarding, exciting, and worthwhile.

I envision a day when teachers and administrators from local school districts, together with parents, will sit at the table with representatives of schools for the blind. I envision a time when such a meeting will not generate any defensiveness, suspicion, hostility, or territoriality. I envision a time when neither local schools nor residential schools will “own” a child. Instead, the family will “own” the child, and the two educational systems will work together, as equal partners, to provide the very best educational program for every individual child. Should we settle for any less?

Phil Hatlen, Ed.D., superintendent, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, 1100 West 45th Street, Austin, TX 78756; e-mail: <philhatlen@tsbvi. edu>.

Join the author in an online discussion about developing partnerships between local schools and schools for the blind.

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