Bright sunlight greeted public officials as they arrived at the front door of St. Joseph’s School for the Blind on Sept. 12. Mayor Steven Fulop, Freeholder Anthony Romano and other dignitaries came to cut the ribbon on a new walkway.
But the breakfast gathering was really a celebration of the schools 125th anniversary, and gave the school a chance to thank city officials for the historically strong financial support that has allowed the school to continue.
School President David Feinhals said without the city providing funds for items such as the walkway, the school would not be able to provide them.
Originally located near Journal Square (where it still maintains a campus) the Summit Avenue Campus opened its doors in 2007, and has expanded its services incrementally, providing programs for blind and disabled children, a residence, as well as a pre-k program for non-disabled.
The city’s director of Community Development, Carmen Gandulla, oversaw the application of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding which paid for the walkway’s construction.
I was very impressed by the work they are doing.” – Steve Fulop
The $25,000 cost was covered by two years of grants, half of which was issued last year with the intent of starting work. But school officials said cold weather prevented the work from starting late last year. Construction started finally last March.
The emergency walkway is compliant with the American with Disabilities Act that allows an evacuation ramp and exist leading from the Cordiora House building to a point of safety on Summit Avenue.
The changes were made by the City’s Fire Officials Dennis Nuber, who suggested that the additional concrete path be installed and should include a ramp to allow wheelchair-bound occupants access from the buildings next door at the northeast corner of the building.
Prior to this construction, occupants in the building were required to exit the building and move in the opposite direction, coming out into the parking lot area, a longer and possibly less secure avenue depending on the need for evacuation.
School officials said the building’s use changed recently to include adult residences as well as an early childhood education facility, and so the additional egress provides more security for those using the building.
The adult programs started in this building in 2012, but the building is used by all the students. The early childhood program is for students from pre-school through first grade.
Fire officials stated that the modification reduces the egress distance from more than 700 feet to under 200 feet. And the path also provides an unobstructed access to the rear of the building for emergency responders and rescuers.
The new path also provides an alternative egress from the second floor of the school buildings, and allows students and staff a faster way out of that part of the school in case of an emergency.
A walk through wonderland
This was Fulop’s first visit to the school in two years, and in taking a tour of the facility for the first time shortly after taking office, he said he found it inspiring.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “But I was very impressed by the work they are doing.”
In a brief tour of the building after cutting the ribbon on the walkway, the mayor and other officials greeted students and teachers in various classrooms.
The school is designed to provide sight-impaired and other students with easy recognition of their surroundings. A wood rail runs throughout the halls guiding students from one room to another, and Braille signs allow them to know where they are. Many of the most seriously impaired students learn multiple lessons, not just in academics but also to serve their cognitive needs. Some students work with various devices that allow them to communicate ideas that they struggle to convey or cannot convey at all. In several instances, part of the lesson is tactile, teaching them how to handle things.
In one classroom where students struggle to walk or even stand, a number of devices are employed to let them sit, stand, or move. Art work decorates halls and many classrooms, a rainbow of color and cheer overflows with hope. In one classroom a visually impaired student shows off his skills on a Braille typewriter, checking his spelling as he types out fundamentals such as his name and the date. He says he has worked with the device for more than five years.
One of the more remarkable features of the school is the full sized swimming pool located on the second floor of the school building, a place of therapy and well as fun, a place where students can be guided through motion with the help of water buoyancy so muscles and limbs can develop.
Many of the lessons in the classrooms are about movement, and students sing along with pre-recorded songs, and dance. Some lessons are so joyous that it seems like a church service, with clapping hands and students moving side to side.
A lot of what the school focuses on is communication, school officials said. While some lessons require the use of advanced technology, often it is the loving touch of a teacher helping a student through a lesson that helps them learn.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.