Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content Side Streets: School has 140 years of teaching deaf, blind students

27 photos photo - Phoenix Garcia, a student with vision loss, uses his hands and face to feel the balloon before he turns it loose during a celebratory balloon launch. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett) + caption
Phoenix Garcia, a student with vision loss, uses his hands and face to feel the balloon before he turns it loose during a celebratory balloon launch. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)
By Bill Vogrin Updated: April 8, 2014 at 5:02 pm

Don't be fooled by the imposing old stone buildings of the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind standing tall atop the hill at Institute Street east of downtown Colorado Springs.

They only look old from the outside. You might be surprised at what's inside the 17 buildings on the 37-acre campus on North Institute Street behind the white wrought-iron fence.

I long admired the buildings and the folks I often saw walking with white canes up and down surrounding streets, learning how to navigate this crazy world with impaired vision or hearing.

I knew the basics of the institution . that it's a state-funded school serving kids across Colorado from birth to age 21 who have impaired hearing and vision.

Click here for a photo gallery of the celebratory balloon launch.

But I never had an opportunity to wander around and look behind the century-old stone facades.

Recently, I learned the school is celebrating its 140th anniversary. I called and asked for a tour. I'm glad I did.

Historic old building mask modern facilities at Deaf and Blind School

What I found really opened my eyes to all the great people and amazing work merging new technology and cutting-edge educational techniques in a historic setting.

My tour guide, Diane Covington, the school's community liaison, showed me around the excellent facilities the administration has built for its 220 or so students who attend daily classes. About half are day students, and the rest live on campus Sundays through Fridays. (The staff of 160 serves about 550 students statewide.)

And she introduced me to some of the great kids and staff at the school.

"It's just like a college campus," Covington said as we moved from building to building, dropping into modern classrooms packed with everything from old Braille writing machines that resemble small typewriters (if you remember typewriters) to state-of-the-art computers, electronic tablets and video equipment.

The technology allows visually impaired students to read and allows rural students to telecommute and interact with teachers and students in Colorado Springs.

"We have a student in Holly whose parents don't want him to live away from home," Covington said, citing just one of the distance-learning students the school serves. "We have two classrooms equipped so he can watch and participate."

As dazzled as I was by the blending of old and new facilities, I was most impressed by the people.

And I found myself a big fan of the teachers who have to deal with all the typical issues of preschoolers, elementary age and teenagers as well as physical challenges I can't comprehend. I stood in awe watching a preschool teacher dramatically enact the eating of an apple as students sat in a semicircle, watching her and a video on a huge screen about eating.

As a history buff, I was stopping frequently to study the photos of famous alumni and benefactors, like the life-size oil painting of Springs founder Gen. William Jackson Palmer in the administration building. Palmer donated 10 acres to the school, and the Colorado Territorial Legislature appropriated $5,000 so Jonathan Kennedy could open the school in 1874 with nine students - including three of his children.

The school's rich history is on display throughout its buildings. There are photos of students and teachers through the decades and reminders of the often crude way society treated folks with physical disabilities, from the language "Deaf Mutes and Blind Institute" to the photos of the teacher and two students who were literally put on display at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis to demonstrate teaching techniques for the blind.

I especially liked walking down a sidewalk and seeing large photos peering out from windows of a former classroom building showing Lon Chaney, the silent film superstar whose parents met at the school. Chaney's skills in sign language and pantomime, which he used to communicate with his parents, helped make him a huge star in silent films, including "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "The Phantom of the Opera."

In addition, I loved digging through the stacks of ledgers, including those documenting the enrollment of the very first students. And I marveled at the school newspapers, printed on-site, dating back to its first years.

The school will celebrate its anniversary with an assembly and balloon release starting at 1 p.m. Tuesday at its gym.

I recommend anyone interested call and schedule a tour. Get to know the people there. Covington tells me the school is always looking for community partners and welcome visitors.

You will be glad you did. I certainly am.

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Read my blog updates at blogs.gazette.com/sidestreets.

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