158 Years and Counting: a History of the Arkansas School for the Blind

158 Years and Counting: A History of the Arkansas School for the Blind

“Slow down! No running on the stairs. Stay on the right-side of the hall,” yelled the principal from her office door, the smell of coffee wafting out into the hallway.

I was 15 years old, and it was the first day of high school for me at the Arkansas School for the Blind (ASB). As I walked through that cloud of coffee, I was just trying not to get run over by all the bigger kids when the principal stopped me.

“Eric, why aren’t you using proper cane technique?” she asked.

It was rhetorical, I knew, and I got the point. I unfolded my cane and started tapping my way to class. Not all students were required to use a cane, a long white stick used to identify a person’s surroundings through touch, but for students with very little to no vision, the cane is a necessary tool for independent travel in the world outside of ASB.

All the high school students were making our way from the welcome assembly to assigned teachers who would give us schedules and answer any questions we had about high school at ASB. My class of seven was large for ASB, but small classes allowed for an environment for more teacher-student interaction. I attended ASB from age 3, and so did most of my friends, so we had the school layout memorized. This meant we could get around just as quick as a sighted student in a main stream high school. Once I graduated and got to hear the experiences of main stream high school students, I learned all high schools have this in common — teachers telling students to behave.

But, not all experienced an education adapted to their personal needs, like my friends and me. ASB shares all the same qualities of mainstream high schools except for the one small difference that it specifically educates blind students. “I think ASB is a better place for blind and visually impaired students to attend because of the opportunities offered. In addition, the classes are smaller and it’s a lot safer compared to a lot of public schools,” says Wesley Hillman, a graduate from the class of 2011. He attended ASB for 15 years, for all of his PK-12 education.

ASB provides a PK-12 education for all blind and visually impaired Arkansans. A three story red-brick building sits front and center of ASB. On the second floor/ground level, you will find middle school classrooms and administration offices. The cafeteria takes up the basement floor, while classrooms, a science lab, and the library take up the third floor. Jutting from the main building are the east and west wings that house an eye clinic, preschool classrooms, and a center where braille and large print books are assigned to blind students in high schools across the state. Scattered around the main building are dormitories, an infirmary, a gymnasium, an auditorium, and a building for vocational classes.

Image of the Arkansas School for the Blind sitting atop the hill at W Markham. Photo rights belong to the Arkansas School for the Blind Alumni Association

The school sprawls atop a hill at 2600 W Markham, a short ways west of downtown Little Rock, Arkansas. Located a couple minutes off one of the main highways, ASB is hard to miss by newcomers. It also sits beside the Arkansas School for the Deaf.

The Arkansas School for the Blind began as the Institute for the Education of the Blind in 1959. Reverend Haucke, a blind Baptist minister, founded the Institute in the small town of Arkadelphia, Arkansas. In 1868, the school was renamed to the Arkansas School for the Blind, and it was moved where the governor’s mansion sits today. ASB made its second and last move to its current location on top of the hill in 1939. ASB is the only school for blind and visually impaired Arkansans.

ASB also serves as a home for students who are unable to travel home every day. Since ASB is the only school for the blind and visually impaired in the state, students unable to make it to campus in a reasonable time have the option of residing on campus from Sunday to Friday. Students at ASB used to live on campus for months on end, before they arranged a contract with Arrow Coach Lines that would provide students reliable rides to and from home every week. Gwendolyn Larkin graduated from ASB in1982. She says, “It was home to me. I didn’t get to go home a lot because my mom couldn’t afford the bus ticket. The staff at ASB were like my parents. We got to do things at ASB that I would have been doing at home like going shopping and going to the movies.”

Because students stay on campus, independent living skills are taught in and out of the classroom. Students learn how to cook, clean, and travel by themselves. “They taught us how to live independently,” says Nivea Stewart, a graduate of ASB from the class of 2002.

The staff and students of ASB utilize time outside of school hours for extracurricular activities, just like any other school. Students at the school have the opportunity to participate in student council, band, art, choir, athletics, Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA), and Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA). These activities allow students the chance to build leadership skills by meeting other blind and sighted high schoolers. The athletics program allows ASB’s athletes to compete with other blind schools in the North Central Association of Schools for the Blind (NCASB) and compete with high schools in Arkansas under the Arkansas Activities Association (AAA). Groups such as FCCLA and FBLA allow ASB students a chance at academic competition with mainstream high schools from the local level all the way up to a national level. These extracurricular activities force blind and visually impaired students to see their disabilities as barriers they can overcome.

The history of ASB is grounded in the family of students like Hillman’s. “Previous generations of my family attended. I knew everyone,” he says, referring to the previous graduates. ASB is a place where the Alumni treat each other like family. The alumni formed a nonprofit association, allowing them to raise money and give back to the school that had made them independent and contributing members of society. Other organizations, such as the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO), Lions Club, and Kiwanis Club support ASB’s goal to better the lives of those with visual impairments.

ASB also provides resources to its students that are hard to come by in the mainstream high school environment. I was introduced to braille when I was around three years old. Like sighted students, learning the alphabet at a young age is critical for future education. ASB realizes such an important factor, and they also provide large print for students who are not as blind or less likely to lose all of their vision. ASB houses a library full of braille and large print literature for students searching for a good read. Because students have an immediate access to books they can get their hands on, the elementary school promotes reading by participating in a state-wide program called Accelerated Reader, a program that rewards points for great reading comprehension.

For graduates of ASB like Hillman, Stewart, Larken, and myself, ASB was more than an education, it was an experience we will never forget. This experience taught us to be independent, familial, and resourceful. Hillman says, “A student who attends ASB can obtain great opportunities as long as they apply themselves.” For any high school, I think this statement is true. The fact that ASB can compete with mainstream high schools is what makes it so great.

For those of you trying to figure out what is so different about ASB, I would say that the differences are not its defining qualities. Rather, it’s the history, students, and community support that make ASB so fascinating. For sighted people who will never get to experience such a concentrated amount of “abnormality” in one place, I hope the next time you see a blind person, you won’t try to pray for them or tell them you are sorry. Instead, ask them their story. Maybe, they went to the school on the hill.

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