A blog about my deafness, journey with cochlear implants, meningitis, my ongoing life...
Thursday, July 25, 2013
Agency, Alumni Frustrated by Plans to Tear Down Wyoming School for the Deaf
The former Wyoming School for the Deaf, which is attached to the Pineview Elementary School in Casper, is scheduled to be demolished next year if the Legislature approves funds to build a new Pineview School requested by the Natrona County School District. (Casper Historic Preservation Commission for The Casper Citizen)
The future of a building that housed the Wyoming School for the Deaf in Casper for more than 40 years is once again uncertain.
The former school, which is attached to Pineview Elementary School, staved off demolition in 2007, when supporters of keeping the historic structure standing gathered more than 7,000 signatures on a petition they submitted to the State Department of Education. The agency still planned to tear down the School for the Deaf, but lack of funds prevented the proposed demolition.
Now, state education officials would again like to see the building torn down, according to Dennis Bay, director of Business Services for the Natrona County School District. Bay said the Department of Education wants the building off of its inventory, primarily because of its maintenance costs.
Although the school closed in 2005, it still serves as a library and resource center for deaf and hearing-impaired students and staff specialists. Services for visually impaired children and adults are also provided at the building, which hosts educational workshops and reunions of former Wyoming School for the Deaf students.
If aspects like the wood and hollow floor are so important and worth recreating, why not look at ways to incorporate the original rotunda into the new design?
The Casper Historic Preservation Commission and alumni of the school are both fighting the proposed demolition, which would take place in 2014 under plans to build a replacement for Pineview Elementary. Bay said funding for the construction still has to be approved by the Legislature, which is scheduled to consider the issue at next year’s session. Until money is available for the project — which includes the school’s demolition — it will remain standing.
State education officials have proposed dedicating between 2,000 and 3,000 square feet of space in a new Pineview School to house a new library as well as offices for Outreach Services for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing research and media specialists. Some aspects of the original school’s design would be recreated in the new space.
“The commission as a whole is disheartened by the impending loss of the Wyoming School for the Deaf building. … [which] is noteworthy for a variety of reasons, including the important role it played in educating Wyoming’s deaf students as well as its unique, purpose-built architecture,” noted Connie Bryan, chairwoman of the Casper Historic Preservation Commission, in a letter to the local school district.
While Bryan said that memorializing some of those special qualities in the new structure is an interesting idea, “If aspects like the wood and hollow floor are so important and worth recreating, why not look at ways to incorporate the original rotunda into the new design?”
In 2007, when the fate of the building was being decided by the state, Kathleen Holmes, one of the WSD’s first students, said, “It’s indeed sad that all the memories and the historical site of the Wyoming School for the Deaf will be wiped out when it’s torn down.”
Once again, alumni of the school are stepping forward to protest the proposal to tear down the former school as part of the new Pineview construction. Meghan Watt attended the school from 1991-98, after her parents moved to Casper solely so she could be enrolled at the WSD.
Watt said the school and staff helped change her life for the better after she lost her hearing as a result of meningitis when she was 2 years old. “I struggled to learn to speak and communicate again, also while making sense of what I was hearing with hearing aids,” she recalled. “The deaf school gave me a better concept of language. When I started learning to sign, that helped me understand language and to speak again.”
Watt said her “whole world opened up” as she learned how to communicate with family and friends. She called her time at the school “the best seven years of my childhood.”
“It would be an absolute shame if the WSD building was torn down,” she said, adding that the library and resource center “is a great resource for anyone needing information or help regarding deafness, education of the deaf and sign language.”
Bryan and another supporter of keeping the WDE building, Barbara Dobos of Casper, said they are concerned that most people in the community are not aware of the state’s plans to tear down the structure if the Legislature appropriates the money to do so.
Bryan said earlier this year, Wally Diller of the State School Facilities Commission said the state would repair any damage to the school that may occur when the state tears down Pineview, and that the School for the Deaf would remain in place.
“We worry that it was not made clear to [the stakeholders] that the building was to be demolished,” Bryan said. “We were shocked when we received notification in early April that it was to come down — we had been assured repeatedly that the connection to Pineview was going to be capped off and the WSD left standing.”
Construction of the WSD as an addition to Pineview took place in 1964. Previously, deaf students in Wyoming had been sent to out-of-state residential programs. The WSD’s purpose was to ensure all children with hearing disabilities, including infants, had access to free and appropriate public education in an atmosphere that emphasized special education and related services and was designed to meet the distinct needs for communicating language. Because the Wyoming Department of Education ran the WSD, it functioned separately from the Natrona County School District and had its own teachers, audiologists, speech pathologists and interpreters.
Families in Casper initially fostered the deaf students in their homes. In 1990, a “cottage” — or live-in — program was started using a three-bedroom building on 8th Street near the school. But by then, new federal laws mandated that all disabled children in private or public institutions were to receive their education in regular educational environments nearest their family homes. As a result, more handicapped students were being “mainstreamed” into regular classrooms, and enrollment at the WDE significantly dropped.
Funding issues caused regular debates in the Legislature about whether the WSD should remain open between 1991 and June 2005, when the facility was permanently closed. The state’s deaf and hearing impaired students are now mainstreamed into their local classrooms in all 48 school districts.
Bryan said it is not constructive when people find out at the eleventh hour about plans to tear down historic schools and other buildings. “Why not try to gauge what the community thinks about the building now, while the plans are still being created and there is still some flexibility, and there is still the opportunity to properly inform and engage the community?” she asked.
The Wyoming School for the Deaf has not been formally evaluated, Bryan noted, but she believes it is likely that the building is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, both for its role in education of hearing-impaired students and its unique architecture.
The structure’s Expressionist Modern design features an irregular, star-shaped floor plan topped by a low, hovering roof of zigzagging gables. The single-story school building is constructed of steel I-beams, with a central rotunda (now used as the library) surrounded by classrooms and offices. The library is flooded with daylight by eight ceiling skylights. Each classroom has a large bank of original windows, some extending almost to the height of the room, which provide ample natural daylight.
The WSD was designed by Krusmark and Krusmark, a father-and-son team that designed many other buildings in Natrona County, including Midwest Elementary School, Dean Morgan Junior High, Kelly Walsh High School and the blossom-like Wyoming National Bank building located in downtown Casper.
Bryan said the younger of the Krusmarks had two deaf children of his own, Elizabeth and Lee Krusmark, so he was especially sensitive to the needs of the population for whom he was designing.