Schools for deaf and blind are unique Faribault assets

Minnesota State Academy of the DeafThey are almost as old as the state of Minnesota itself. They offer unique educational experiences that can be found in few other places. They make a difference.

The Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf (MSAD) and the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind (MSAB) are two institutions that aren’t always talked about in Faribault. Perhaps, though, they deserve a spot at the top of the list of what makes this city special.

“We are great students. We can tackle any issue equal to or greater than other students. Being here, the students are far less isolated. They are open to far more opportunities,” said 1974 MSAD graduate Mike Cashman.

Cashman was speaking specifically about the deaf school he attended, but the point could likely be extended to the students at the blind school about a mile down the road. The two schools came from the same place after all, and although they have very different students with very different needs, the general message that learning is for everyone is shared between campuses.

That philosophy is common among not just students, but also teachers and administration. At both schools, those hearing or visually impaired are discovering one another and learning to work past limitations, while the non-impaired are developing new ways to understand their surroundings.

“I think every day I’ve been here, the students have taught me some new way to revisualize my world,” said 19-year MSAB worker Joan Chavie.

A long history

It was only five years after Minnesota even became a state that MSAD (then called something else) enrolled its first student. According to Cashman, who literally wrote the book on the school’s history with the now deceased Douglas Bahl, Minnesota’s interest in providing an education to the deaf and hearing impaired was part of a national trend.

“The trend started in 1817 when the very first school for the deaf in Connecticut was started,” said Cashman in sign language with Amy Amundsen interpreting. “Deaf schools started springing up all over the country after that. Minnesota followed suit.”

Cashman said it was influential families with ties to deaf children that sparked the interest. In Minnesota, and specifically Faribault, it was the Howe family, which included a deaf daughter. They started some activity before Minnesota was even a state in the mid 1850s.

After Minnesota was officially a state, legislators in the Twin Cities pushed for a deaf school and citizens of Faribault offered up 40 acres of land to host the school. The site was originally at the current location of Faribo West Mall.

Charles Batcheler, David Frost and Rodney Mott were chosen as commissioners, but after a few years, the job was left to Mott. And he would be involved for the next half-century, according to Cashman.

Cashman and 1966 MSAD graduate Gary Meier explained the development of the actual school sites over the years. The first school building was on Central and First avenues. That building was sold, though, and the school was moved to the current site on Olof Hanson Drive. Over the years, many structures have come up and gone down. The academy now consists of 10 buildings, the oldest being the laundry facility, built in the 19th century, followed by Noyse Hall, built from 1903-1910. Cashman said the key to MSAD’s early success was its leaders, and specifically Mott.

“[Mott] was an outstanding man for the deaf community. He took care of this school,” Cashman said.

Meanwhile, about three years after the deaf academy started, Faribault opened its doors to the blind as well. Inspired by the determination of Harriet Tucker, MSAB began to serve the visually impaired in 1866, making 2016 the school’s 150th anniversary.

“Let us found a school for them, so that those who do not have physical sight, may yet have the light and have it more abundantly,” Tucker wrote in the 19th century.

For more than a century, the school was located on a hill, overseeing the Straight River and downtown Faribault. Eventually, it moved to its current location on Sixth Avenue, not far from MSAD.

Serving communities

Both academies have developed not only in their physical forms, but in their educational practices, methods and populations. They’re both state-funded academies with living quarters and myriad facilities available.

They’re also destinations. Places where students, who struggle to relate to their peers in public schools, can learn among people like themselves.

“The kids who attend here find instant friendships, instant relationships,” said MSAB teacher Betty Shallbetter, who is visually impaired. “They don’t feel like the odd one out.”

The academies, using the latest technology, small classroom sizes and trained staff, are able to work through students’ impairments and provide the kids with the best possible education. Here, the students don’t have to feel like they are falling behind due to disadvantages in the classroom that they can’t control.

Instead, they can focus on learning. And what that creates, according to teachers Shallbetter, Chavie and Connie Telschow at MSAB and alumni Cashman and Meier at MSAD, is community.

“There’s just so many good mentors available to me that I cherish from my time here,” Cashman said. “There are lot of friends here I grew up with. Lifelong friends. We’re a family here.”

Schools for deaf and blind are unique Faribault assets

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