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As it undergoes renovation, Maryland School for the Blind in Parkville strengthens local ties

Courts and the JudiciaryHighway and Road TransportationHelen Keller

Wilfred Handel said three generations of his family have lived in a West Elm Street house adjacent to the Maryland School for the Blind campus in Parkville.

It didn't faze him that he could expect noise, dust and traffic as the school undergoes a facilities overhaul.

Attending a Feb. 6 town forum discussion of the project, he said, "I'm tickled to death with what they're doing here."

In fact, not a discouraging word was heard from any of the 20 persons who turned out at an MSB meeting room as Michael Bina, school president, explained what the cranes and bulldozers are doing on the north side of the Taylor Avenue campus, which straddles the city-county line in the northeast corner of the city.

In addition to outlining the school's reconstruction master plan, Bina used the meeting to reaffirm the bond between the school and the surrounding residences. Among his suggestions were establishing a neighborhood contact list so the school could send out alerts, reviving an old campus warning siren and linking up with neighborhood watch groups.

Christopher Beattie, who lives nearby on Taylor Avenue, called these "great ideas."

"It's hard to get the city police out here," he said. "The way they prioritize calls, we often feel deserted out here."

Other times, the response is overwhelming. He recalled an incident in which rip-off artists invaded a neighborhood drug den, triggering a violent clash.

"We had enough police out here, it looked like a war zone," he said.

Neighbors said they appreciate the school as an oasis of tranquillity. Woods and open space, which harbor deer and foxes, comprise two-thirds of the 100-acre campus. Plans are to leave this alone.

Expanded mission

But amid the cluster of academic, administrative and residential building on the north side, an important transformation is underway as the MSB sharpens its mission from helping those who are only blind to helping the blind with other disabilities — the autistic blind, blind persons in wheel chairs, the deafblind and others.

Bina said many facilities on campus, many built around 1970, cannot support this changing mission and must be replaced. That has been a key goal since he came to MSB in 2008 from Boston's Perkins School for the Blind, which was attended by Helen Keller.

"Facilities here were unsuitable for our students. They were designed for blind only," he said. "And, a lot of them were aging out."

The school is a private, nonprofit, state-supported institution. It is one of a kind in the state and is attended by 73 percent of Maryland's 1,800 blind or visually impaired students, age 3 to 20, who come from every county and some from out of state. About 92 percent of its budget comes from the state and local jurisdictions, with the remainder coming from endowments and fundraising.

MSB has a stable student population of about 190. The staff numbers 340, including 48 teachers.

The school was founded in 1853 and originally stood on North Avenue in the city. The building was condemned for a road construction project, and the institution relocated to its current Parkville site, which was purchased for $26,000, in 1907.

Among the current student body are cheerleaders, swimmers and musicians. There is an annual prom.

About half the students are day students who go home daily and half live on campus from Sunday night to Friday afternoon.

The school's board of directors in 2010 approved a master plan, which anticipated receiving $110 million over 10 years. Bina said there is no guarantee that much will be received, but he called the level of state support for a private school "unprecedented."

Leading a tour of the residential building under construction, called LIFE (Learning in a Functional Environment) Cottages, Dave Ashley, director of facilities, and members of general contracting firm Lewis Contractors of Owings Mills, pointed out the ceiling rail system where a grid of hanging lifts will transport students who cannot walk. In the bathrooms, toilets will have adjustable armrests.

A covered walkway will take youngsters from their residence to the classroom building without their having to go outdoors.

"There's no gilded lily here," the school president said. "These are functional facilities."

Bina said one reason those with the purse strings are enthusiastic about the project is that it saves money: It will no longer be necessary to send the blind with severe disabilities to facilities out of state — which is not only much more expensive, but separates students from their families.

The campus' two grand-brick structures, Newcomer and Morrison halls, which date from 1907, will remain. Six buildings will be torn down and replaced with six major buildings.

One thing that won't change, Bina said, is the goal of "the highest expectation of independence" from each student.

Is Maryland School for the Blind a kind of family?

"We don't want to be their families. We want them to have a relationship with their own families," the school president said.

Bina said there should be few limits to what the blind can accomplish "other than being a jet pilot or driving a Greyhound bus. ... It shouldn't be remarkable that a blind person can become a lawyer and argue before the Supreme Court.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Courts and the JudiciaryHighway and Road TransportationHelen Keller
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