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Rock Hill teacher helps spruce up SC school for deaf, blind

Years passed and chances of renovating a student dorm at the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind slimmed. It badly needed updating, but a shrinking budget forced the school to focus on more pressing needs. Revamping the building where 18 deaf girls live during the week fell farther down a priority list.

Then Bryan Coburn stopped by.

The Northwestern High School computer science and pre-engineering teacher and current state Teacher of the Year visited in November along with fellow members of Leadership South Carolina, a public service organization that brings together business and community leaders from across the state as volunteers. The group saw the dorm and heard about the school's underfunded hopes to add more technology.

The dorm "just looks so institutionalized," Coburn said. "This is where they spend most of their teenage years. I just can't imagine having to sit around and look at the dank institutional walls.

"You could see the little technology they have and what a difference it makes for them. I said, 'These kids already have so many disadvantages, we can't walk by this and not do something.'"

Last week Leadership S.C. returned with tools, brushes and 100 gallons of paint. And more good news: They're just $15,000 shy of their $55,000 fundraising target to buy 14 digital, interactive white boards for classrooms.

The screens, about the size of standard chalk boards, can play video and audio and surf the Web. They also have touch-screen capability so students and teachers can write on them.

The school has, in the last two years, added 52 of the boards. Interim Superintendent Maggie Park hopes to eventually outfit every classroom and dorm with one.

The boards, teachers and students said, have vastly improved education at the school.

Teachers can adjust the screens' contrast and magnify lessons so students who are visually impaired but not blind can better see them. They can listen to speeches, songs and other audio programs. Students who are deaf and hard of hearing can watch videos and interact with the boards.

"It allows teachers to be very creative in what they do," Park said.

"You can take anything and project it on that screen," said Vicki Banks, who has taught visually impaired students at the school for 13 years. "It's really made adapting materials so much easier. The boards have changed things dramatically."

School changes lives

The 274 students enrolled at the School for the Deaf and the Blind come from across the state. Seventy percent of them live on campus during the week; busses take them home on Friday afternoons to spend the weekend with their families then bring them back on Sunday evenings.

James Ivey said the school has changed his life.

At 2, Ivey was diagnosed with severe sensorineural hearing loss, an irreversible condition which left him hard of hearing but not deaf.

James is smart, said Ivey's father, Freddy, and performed well in elementary school.

When he was 12, James' mother died of cancer. Struggling with the loss, he fell behind in school. Catching up was even tougher because he didn't hear well enough to understand the lessons, Freddy Ivey said. His father applied to enroll James at the School for the Deaf and the Blind.

In seventh grade, James began taking a bus from his house in Rock Hill to the school, 70 miles away.

"He's really flourished over there," Freddy Ivey said. "We're really proud of him."

James, 16, is on the school's football team. The 11th-grader has lots of friends, knows sign language and is close to scoring straight As.

"Now I take time to focus on education," he signed through an interpreter.

Last year, James was crowned Mr. Deaf Teen South Carolina and traveled to Baltimore to compete in the national pageant against students from across the nation.

Recently, his father said, James broke his school's record for pogo stick jumps. The record was 1,400 continuous jumps. James' new record: 4,500.

"Putting him in that school is the best thing I could've done for him," Freddy Ivey said. "Without it, I don't know if he'd be lost. I really can't express how important it is. It's been vital to his development and education."

Three schools on campus

The School for the Deaf and the Blind started in 1849 in the Rev. Newton Pinckney Walker's living room, where he taught five deaf children.

Today, the campus is comprised of 33 buildings and athletic facilities sprawled across 160 acres 4 miles southeast of downtown Spartanburg.

There are three schools on the property for students in preschool up to 12th grade: A school for the blind, one for the deaf and another for students with more than one disability.

Although the school offers services to districts across the state, it's not part of South Carolina's public school system. It receives money from the state, but the portion of its budget that money makes up has been shrinking. At one time, Park said, about 70 percent of the school's money came from the state. Today, it's 38 percent. The rest comes from federal grants and private funding, which hasn't been enough to offset cuts in state money.

In the last two years, the school's budget has fallen from $34.4 million to $30 million. As a result, temporary employees were laid off while others had to take unpaid leave. Jobs have been left unfilled, and printers and copiers haven't been replaced.

The school managed to complete several renovation projects, including putting a new roof on the dorm that Leadership S.C. is renovating and fixing other dorms. But there's work left to be done.

The career and technology building, Park said, needs a new heating system and paint. The classrooms need work and new equipment. And paneling from the 1960s could use an update.

"We would love to do a lot throughout the campus," Park said, "but the budget right now doesn't allow for that."

Coburn hopes that the Leadership S.C. project is just the beginning of a larger effort to help the school. The group is trying to spread the word across the state to attract businesses and volunteers to pitch in to renovate other parts of the campus and to donate money for the digital boards.

"There are all types of renovations that need to be done," said Helen Munnerlyn, director of Leadership S.C. "Their budget has been decimated. It's especially difficult for a school with all types of needs."

Mimi Jillella and Kia Smith, both 14, live in the dorm that Coburn and colleagues are renovating.

They stopped by the building on Friday and peeked in as the group scraped paint and moved furniture to prepare for 40 volunteer painters arriving the next day.

The girls beamed when Coburn showed them the shades of blue and green that would replace the dated, dull gray covering the walls.

"It's going to be freshly painted with pretty colors," Jillella said through an interpreter. Now, "it just looks plain. The walls didn't look clean."

They're also excited about getting more digital white boards.

"To have that new technology, it helps us learn a lot," Smith signed. "My education is better with the board."

"It saves time, too," Jillella said. Plus, "They're cool."

Leadership S.C. plans to leave all the tools they brought so if anyone offers to work on the campus, they can use them.

The group is optimistic that others will come forward.

"It's incredibly valuable," Munnerlyn said. "The kids are going to see firsthand that somebody cares about them."


Donations can be sent to The School for the Deaf and the Blind's foundation:

The Walker Foundation

355 Cedar Springs Road

Spartanburg, SC 29302

Phone: 888-447-2732



To discuss continuing the renovation project, contact Leadership South Carolina at 803-788-5700 or visit

Or contact the school at 864-577-7583;