2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Historic old building mask modern facilities at Deaf and Blind School

Published: April 6, 2014, 8:00 am, by Bill Vogrin
The main administration building at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind on April 3, 2014. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

The main administration building, opened in 1906, at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind on April 3, 2014. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

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.

The 37-acre campus of the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind. Courtesy FlashEarth.com

The 37-acre campus of the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind. Courtesy FlashEarth.com

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

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.

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 of them are “day students” and the rest live on campus Sunday through Friday. (The school’s staff of 160 serves about 550 students statewide.)

Diane Covington, community liaison at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind, points to the student ledger of every child ever enrolled dating to 1874. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

Diane Covington, community liaison at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind, points to the student ledger of every child ever enrolled dating to 1874. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

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

“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 even 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 CSDB serves. “We have two classrooms equipped so he can watch and participate.”

The class of the Blind School in 1889. Courtesy the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind.

The class of the Blind School in 1889. Courtesy the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind.

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 pre-schoolers, 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 semi-circle, watching her and a video on a huge screen about eating.

The campus of the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

The campus of the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

As a history buff, I was stopping frequently to study the photos of famous alumni and benefactors, like the lifesize oil painting 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 own children.

An early, undated photo of a class at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind. Believed to be the late 1800s. Courtesy photo.

An early, undated photo of a class at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind. Believed to be the late 1800s. Courtesy photo.

The school’s rich history is on display throughout its buildings.

There are photos of students and teachers through the decades.

This teacher and her two students went to the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis and put on exhibitions of teaching methods. Courtesy of the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind.

Student Lottie Sullivan, left, her teacher, Bessie Veditz, and an unidentified boy seen in 1904. The three went to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis to represent the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind. They demonstrated techniques for teaching students with visual and hearing impairments. Courtesy of the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind.

Some offer 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 Worlds Fair in St. Louis to demonstrate teaching techniques for the blind.

Trolleys packed with people stop at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind in an undated photo believed to be around the turn of the 20th century. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

Trolleys packed with people stop at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind in an undated photo believed to be around the turn of the 20th century. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

I especially liked walking down a sidewalk and seeing large photos peering from 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.

This ledger shows the  first student enrolled in the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind from its inception in 1874. The school has detailed historic records of its students and activities. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

This ledger shows the first student enrolled in the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind from its inception in 1874. The school has detailed historic records of its students and activities. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

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.

Diane Covington, community liaison at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind, examines the school's "Touch Museum" _ a collection of stuffed animals. Students with visual impairments are taught about various animals by touching the taxidermy displays. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

Diane Covington, community liaison at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind, examines the school’s “Touch Museum” _ a collection of stuffed animals. Students with visual impairments are taught about various animals by touching the taxidermy displays. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette


IF YOU GO

The Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind offers tours on the first and third Monday of each month. For more information, call Diane Covington, 578-2225 or email her at dcovington@csdb.org.

The School for the Deaf will present a spring program celebrating the school’s history at 6 p.m., May 1, in the Gottlieb Building. The School for the Blind will present its own program at 6 p.m., May 13, in the Gottlieb Building.

Images of Lon Chaney, the silent film star known as the Man of a Thousand Faces, peer from a former classroom building on the campus of the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind. Both Chaney's parents attended the school and his ability to express emotion, learned from communicating with his deaf parents, aided his film career. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

Images of Lon Chaney, the silent film star known as the Man of a Thousand Faces, peer from a former classroom building on the campus of the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind. Both Chaney’s parents attended the school and his ability to express emotion, learned from communicating with his deaf parents, aided his film career. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

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Student Lottie Sullivan, left, her teacher, Bessie Veditz, and an unidentified boy seen in 1904. The three went to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis to represent the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind. They demonstrated techniques for teaching students with visual and hearing impairments. Courtesy the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind.

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