In the Fall of 1922, the Western Pennsylvania Institution for the Blind underwent a name change to henceforth be known as the Western Pennsylvania School for the Blind. Within its majestic walls and throughout its hallowed halls, the student body embraced the notion that merely to be a good student wasn’t good enough. Excellence was the name of the game! Competitive teams were to emerge. A track team, wrestling team, swim team, bowling team, as well as many clubs such as the Boy and Girl Scouts, instilled purpose, ambition, and a zest for enjoyment in the students. As far back as the 1930s, sportsmanship and competitive zeal were focused on as keenly as education. Readily understood was that a reverence for competitive sport was as much a part of education as ones studies.
With the passage of each educational day, the students at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Blind not only learned their lessons well, through two hour long daily study periods, but heartily appreciated and enjoyed their free times. Let us visit the school during the time period of the mid 1950s to the 1970s.
Each day would begin at seven Am promptly, as the residential houseparents would awaken the students by strolling down the corridors of the second and third floors and knocking on each door. The first school bell would chime and the day would commence.
After breakfast, morning assembly would take place in the chapel. With its many pews and its magnificent pipe organ that was donated in 1901, a student organist would play two or three songs, either patriotic or religious, and the mornings announcements would then be read. Morning assemblies would often be times when new student talent would be showcased, on-site medical appointments would be announced, and birthdays would be recognized.
Composed of seven fifty minute class periods, the school day would be divided into four morning classes and three afternoon classes.
A ten minute morning recess would find many of the youngest children romping outdoors, while high schoolers would be dashing off to grab a mid morning snack from their dormitory rooms, or chatting with friends.
The curriculum closely followed that of the Pittsburgh public schools. When one entered ninth grade, one would be presented with course choices for ones future. Course categories would range from the general course, which prepared students for careers such as massage therapy and vending stand operation, to the business course, for aspiring secretaries and medical transcriptionists, and finally, the academic course of study, designed for the college bound.
Formal instruction would end promptly at three thirty PM, and this is when the physical education program would begin two days each week, once for swimming class and once for gym class.
The special interest activities would be held during the remaining three days. These ranged from concert choir and band practice, to wrestling matches and cheer-leading opportunities.
Study Hall was a mandatory part of each evening. Held from six to eight Pm, required daily homework was done in a flash, and Braille copies of both the dictionary and the World Book encyclopedia were eagerly perused.
Surprisingly, the day did not ended at the conclusion of the evening study hall. Recreational programming such as games of bingo, bowling complete with student pin setters, drama club, ham radio club, science club, and outside play would round out this ambitious day.
Working opportunities presented students with the chance to earn spending money. The on campus snack bar, complete with a cash register and shelves which needed stocked, provided the unique opportunity to actually operate a commercial establishment. Many a young boy or girl would go on to run their own snack bar, through programs established by the United States government.
Through classes in wood shop, sheet metal shop, Junior Achievement membership, and home economics, future carpenters, business entrepreneurs, and home-makers dotted the landscape.
Traditions and Ambitions
The school, during the mid to late twentieth century, cultivated the imaginations of its elementary students through educational seminars for junior high participants, wherein lively intellectual discussions took place, from the debate over Chinese Communism versus Soviet, to the chance to gain appreciation for the citizens of neighboring South America via international classroom visitors, the cooking of foods which were popular in the southern hemisphere at the time, as well as geographical simulations within the classroom.
For many years, both the concert band and choir would pay annual visits to the Webster Hall hotel, the Three Rivers Arts Festival, and the William Penn hotel.
The Boy Scouts would hold an annual Camporee every Fall with five other schools for the blind. Traditional high school dances in honor of Sadie Hawkins day would be held, and fund-raising opportunities by the two service clubs, the Key and Lock clubs, would provide the students the chance to hold an annual luncheon and fashion show, the proceeds from which allowed the young ladies to adopt a Vietnamese foster child.
Established in 1952, the wrestling team competed with such schools as Shadyside Academy, Kisky Prep, Bishop Boyle, and the School for the Deaf in weekly matches, garnering many victories.
The 1960s ushered in many innovations. The year, 1967, brought with it the opportunity for the business students to use their first Dictaphone machine to learn how to take dictation, and a new speedy tape duplicator was purchased for the school library through the Sarah Mellon Scaife Foundation.
For the enterprising teachers of the sixties and seventies era, information and innovations would be utilized and implemented from conventions held as far away as New Zealand and Belgium. One such unique discovery which had its roots in Pittsburgh at the school, was the realization that through the use of compressed, high speed speech, elementary students could process information at a much higher rate when studying.
1949 Younger nursery school age children are now being admitted.
1949: Composed of salesmen, lawyers, musicians, radio announcers, businessmen, and educators, an active alumni organization invites its members to speak to students regarding vocational choices.
The 1950s: A Decade of Firsts
The 1950s was a decade of initiation for the school.
- 1950: First parent teachers organization meeting is held.
- 1950: First program is begun to benefit the parents of blind infants.
- 1950: The school is now conducting on-site hearing tests to recognize hearing impairment and speech defects.
- 1950: Travel training instruction is begun.
- 1950: First car is purchased to take students on field trips.
- 1950: New training class unveiled in switchboard instruction.
- 1950: The Pittsburgh Lions Club initiates its first annual Christmas tree sale.
- 1953: New kindergarten classroom building is built.
- 1953: Name changes to Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children and the organization is functioning in a rejuvenated plant with expanded, revitalized curriculum and a newly awakened public is evaluating and supporting the organization with interest.
- November 16, 1953: Mayor David L. Lawrence proclamation of “school for blind children week” in conjunction with public relations efforts.
- 1954: The school Discontinues the policy of isolation of the sexes – meaning dining rooms saw boys and girls of similar ages eating together. Instituted dances and directed recreation over the weekend – and permission for boys and girls to leave the school together.
Then and Now
Although there are appreciable differences between the appearance and customs of our school from its earlier formative years in comparison to the current 21st century example, there are surprising similarities in both instruction and the continuing of traditions. Though the landscape and architectural facade differs from the campus of old, the defining principle of thriving and flourishing is actively encouraged. Raising the bar in the education of the blind and children who are multiply disabled, positive change continues to be the prevailing philosophy of the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children.
Then: Sight saving classes were a fixture in the day to day education of students. An ophthalmologist was not only on the Board of Directors of the school, but available for visits and consultation at what was known as Eye and Ear hospital.
Now: Remarkable success in the restoration of vision has been achieved through the Cortical Visual Impairment Clinics, which are held on the campus of the school. An on-site physiatrist, Dr. Ellen Kitts, as well as an ophthalmologist, Dr. Paul Freeman, make weekly visits.
Then: With the purchase of its first car in 1950, the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children has given students the chance to go on interesting field trips. Among the more interesting trips were those to the aviary, Phipps conservatory, the airport, and Buhl Planetarium.
Now: Students still enjoy field trips as they did in earlier times. Those trips which are still provided are trips to baseball games, Carnegie museum, Christmas shopping expeditions, and the eagerly anticipated excursion to Kennywood park.
Then: Student talent shows were held, and awards were given to the best performers.
Now: Each month, a special award is given to the student who has shown the most progress, based largely on the reports of teachers, speech and language pathologists, instructional and residential aides, and physical and occupational therapists.
Then: A junior-senior prom was held annually where the young people decorated and dressed up.
Now: In May, the prom is still held. The couples still dress up, and dance to the latest top forty tunes.
Then: Students enjoyed working at various jobs at school some of which were work in the kitchen, on the switchboard, in the greenhouse, and at the school snack bar.
Now: Students work in the school store (called The Lions Den), work in the greenhouse, deliver papers, and water plants.
Then: In 1950, the annual Christmas tree sale was begun by the Pittsburgh Lions Club.
Now: In its 62nd year, the tradition lives on and is extremely successful!
Then: Boy Scouts was a very popular organization on the school campus. Working towards merit badges proved to be both challenging and interesting.
Now: Both the Boy Scouts and the Girls club meet weekly.
Then: Visiting choral ensembles and barbershop quartets such as the Muses and the Sweet Adelines brought beautiful music to the eager ears of our students.
Now: The Hilda M. Willis performing arts series brings both local and nationally known performers to the school for weekly performances.
New Look, Noble Vision, Many Roads
As we so vividly observed during our historical excursion, the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children is no stranger to change and innovations. Uppermost in the minds of the administrators was and still is the wish to make life richer and fuller for children who are blind. The school was about to undergo yet another more significant change with the embracing of children who were not only blind, but who had the challenges of many other disabilities. The board of directors knew it was now time to serve a previously forgotten group of deserving, disabled children.
In 1968, a two week pilot project involving 16 children, ages six to thirteen, with concomitant disabilities was initiated by the school to see if such a plan could, indeed, be successfully implemented. By the 1970s, blind children co-mingled along with children with varying degrees of blindness and disability, and the traditional courses were being taught, as before.
Due to the beginning of widespread mainstreaming in the mid to late 1970s, the makeup of the student population of the school began to dramaticly change.
The 1980s were a busy time of reconfiguration of the campus, hiring specialized personnel such as nurses, and both physical and occupational therapists, in addition to speech language pathologists and paraprofessional residential and instructional aides.
In 1985: the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children initiated three different research projects which were designed to help bring independence to multi-handicapped students.
In 1986 after intense study and discussion, the School transitioned to a facility fully dedicated to educating students who in addition to blindness, evidenced severe multiple disabilities.
Major transformation in the school’s population led the administration to make changes in the physical plant, curriculum, and staffing. Medical and therapeutic supports for the extremely challenged and often medically fragile population were now cornerstones of the programming.
1988 saw the change of the curriculum from a more traditional base to a non-graded set of programs.
Today, in 2012, the school does not utilize the traditional curriculum of grades. By the time a student graduates from the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children, he or she will have completed three levels; the early childhood curriculum, the intermediate curriculum, and the transitional curriculum.
Students in the early childhood department range from three to six years of age. Located in the Janet Simon building or what is known as the Early Childhood Center, the program not only teaches blind children with multiple disabilities, but also teaches children who have blindness as their only disability. These children move on at the age of six to a successful integration into public school, tutored in the fundamentals such as a knowledge of reading and writing Braille, the ability to utilize the white cane to move about, and the vital opportunity to learn daily living techniques and skills.
During the past three years, the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children has added several exciting new facets to our existing programming. A key component of what is done in 2012 is outreach. In addition to teaching the children who attend school on the Oakland campus, our teachers travel to neighboring public schools, to the homes of the youngest students, and in addition, cultivate relationships with families whose children would benefit from our Cortical Visual Impairment clinics and program.
In addition to the outreach done by the school, the post graduate vocational training program for students from 21 to 26 years of age, and our Transitional Academy are offshoots of our five year strategic plan which was initiated in 2009 by our superintendent and executive director, Todd S. Reeves.
According to Superintendent Reeves: “In the earlier days of the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children, there was only one road. Education was based within the school.
Now the roads are two-way, our Outreach staff gets on the road to School districts at the same time our enrolled students are on the road to WPSBC.”