STAUNTON — The Queen City has a diamond in the rough.
“I call VSDB the ‘hidden gem’ in Virginia,” said Patricia Trice, superintendent at the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind in Staunton. “People still don’t know what we do or that we’re here.”
Dr. James Lane, Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction, agreed while visiting VSDB for a tour Tuesday afternoon.
“We sent a student here for high school one time, and it changed his life,” he said.
Lane is trying to visit every school division in the Commonwealth.
“Although VSDB is their own agency, I feel like it’s important for us to know what’s going on here,” he said.
VSDB was the first school for deaf and blind individuals established in the United States, and stands as one of the oldest schools in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Opened in 1839, the school has been providing opportunities for success among a population living with deafness and blindness, hearing or vision impairment, and often a combination of these conditions with additional disabilities for nearly 180 years. Free of charge to families, the school currently has 85 students enrolled.
“We’re promoting independence for all students,” Trice said as she signed greetings in ASL to deaf and hearing impaired students passing by.
When students do not get the support they need, their potential is limited, Trice said.
“We are trying to take the barriers out of the way for these students,” she said. “We want them to reach the fullest potential that they are able to reach on an individual basis.”
With a staff of qualified educators specializing in teaching students living with these disabilities, some of whom are deaf or blind themselves, the school provides not only excellent academics, but also athletics, an adaptive music program and extra-curricular activities. Students have the chance to thrive academically, socially, and are frequently able to transition into the workforce through hands-on practical experience both on and off-campus through the school’s Achieve program.
“They get direct instruction in ASL,” Trice said.
According to Trice, ASL instruction is not available in many places.
“The students in the blind department have the best and the newest technology,” she said. “They are learning how to use that technology from a teacher who is blind himself, so he is a practitioner of what he’s teaching.”
Students often share their experiences in other school settings with Trice.
“The challenges that they’ve had being the only blind student in the school, or the bullying that went on, or not being able to communicate to anybody because the only person they had was an interpreter,” Trice said. “When they get here, it’s free-flowing communication. Everybody’s walking in each other’s shoes because they are all sharing that experience. They have girlfriends and boyfriends, and communicate. For the first time, they are, quote, ‘normal.’”
The school’s blind soccer team recently launched, one of only two in the nation. VSDB also houses the largest educational urban farm program, where students help cultivate crops and also get to cook and eat them.
In the Independent Living Apartment, one of VSDB’s flagship programs, residents live in renovated on-campus apartments for nine weeks and learn how to pay rent and bills, manage budgets, cook, and develop other life skills for living independently, Trice explained.
“It is the only program in Virginia of its kind,” She said.
The building even features a store of its own where residents can purchase essentials for their apartment, such as kitchenware and cleaning supplies.
“What’s real impressive is that you can tell they tailor the program that meets every child’s individual needs so that they can maximize their potential,” Lane said.
He observed that VSDB is meeting the goals that the education department strives for in all schools in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
“It’s amazing to see students blossom and develop,” Trice said. “It truly is a place that looks at the whole child and fosters that whole child development.”