In the 1820s, a movement was underway to provide education and training to blind children. The movement began in Boston and New York and moved westward as territories became states in the Union. In 1849, in Janesville, Wisconsin, a group of about 30 citizens met to discuss a school for the blind. At this meeting, Mr. J.T. Axtell discussed and demonstrated techniques required for educating the blind. The group, headed by Mr. Hyatt Smith, collected $430 and a private school was started. The first class consisted of eight students. Subjects offered included arithmetic, reading, writing, spelling, philosophy, geography, knitting, and broom- and brush-making. Captain Miltimore, one of the six trustees, offered his home for the site of the school, and this building still stands at 802 Center Avenue in Janesville. In February of 1850, some of these students went to Madison to demonstrate their skills and abilities to the State Legislature. The legislators were duly impressed and on February 9, 1850, created the first State-supported educational institution in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Institute for the Education of the Blind.
Due to continual growth, a new location was needed. Again, Captain Miltimore assisted by donating ten acres of land by the Rock River to the state for the purpose of building a new school. In 1852, the school was relocated to the new site, which is still the same location for the school today. The original building was built facing the river, as was often done at that time when rivers were a more reliable transportation network than roads. Over the next decade construction was ongoing as well as the development of the curriculum. During this period, enrollment grew to 58 students.
Administration of WSBVI begins with the Principal, under the direction of the Center Director of the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired (WCBVI) which is under the direction of the Director of Special Education, Division of Learning Support: Equity and Advocacy at the Department of Public Instruction.
There have been 25 Superintendents with Dr. Thomas Hanson the last to serve as Superintendent from 1998-2001
In 1874, there was a major fire at the school (this was the third major fire at a residential school throughout the nation.) This fire caused one death, Henry Nelson, and was the contributing cause to the death of Superintendent Tom Little in 1875. Many community organizations came to the aid of the school and its "inmates" (students) and the Legislature allocated $174,000 to rebuild the school.
In 1868, Braille was introduced as a subject. In 1871, New York Points, another dot-reading system, was incorporated into the curriculum. Both of these dot systems remained as part of the curriculum until the 1930s when Braille became the official reading system for blind persons in the United States.
In 1885, the name of the school was changed to the Wisconsin School for the Blind. This name remained until 1945, when it became the Wisconsin School for the Visually Handicapped and in 2012 was again renamed to the Wisconsin School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. 1885 was also the first year for which records list the graduates from the school. One of the two 1885 graduates, M.A. McGalloway, later donated the grandfather clock which stands in the lobby today. In 1897, the Alumni Association of the Wisconsin School for the Blind (now the AAWSBVI) was organized.
In the later 1800s and early 1900s, enrollment continued to grow and the curriculum to be refined. In 1918, a new program was established at the school, an adult summer program. The primary focus of the initial summer program for adults was that of male World War I veterans who suffered vision loss. The eight-week program offered training to enable these veterans to regain independence. In 1923, the program was opened to women. In 1937, the school was moved from the State's welfare department to the Department of Public Instruction, where it remains today.
Co-curricular activities have always been an integral part of the school. In 1863 and 1864, the school presented a musical concert in the community to help support the war efforts. These activities continued throughout the years. In the mid-1920s, the school received gold cups for their choral and orchestral presentations. Today the music program continues to thrive with individual lessons, group instruction, various bands, and senior recitals, and several annual concerts. In the 1940s, athletics gained a greater role at the school. The first athletic event that the school participated in was a national telegraphic track meet in 1909 and 1910. Results for each participant from schools around the country were telegraphed in. New Mexico took the title each year.
In the 1940s, WSBVI had a basketball team and played a limited schedule. It appears the competition was primarily the School for the Deaf and some community teams. In the late 1940s, Mr. Ted Albrecht, a teacher at the school, started a wrestling program for the blind. The school's team competed against other public schools including the State champions of each year. In 1950, Mr. Albrecht took a team and competed in a tournament of schools for the blind. The first WSBVI wrestler to compete at State sectionals was Jerry Meysembourg in 1964. In 1981, Jack Gibbs became the only WSBVI wrestler to compete in the State tournament. WSBVI became a member of the North Central Association of schools for the Blind (now the North Central Association of Schools for the Visually Handicapped) in the 1950s and continues with this affiliation today. The 1973 wrestling team coached by Paul Jentz was the only team to win the conference title. In 1960, WSBVI started a track and field team and participated in the NCASVH.
In 1967, cheerleading became a competitive activity in the NSACVH and the Title IX had a significant impact in the 1970s. A girls' track team was formed, which competed in the NCASVH conference. Also, two new teams were established for both boys and girls: cross-country and swimming. WSBVI had the first girls' cross-country team in the city of Janesville. In 1975, swimming became a sport for the blind, and Wisconsin dominated the conference for the next two decades. The swim and cross-country programs were developed and coached by John Sonka. Other co-curricular activities that were added included forensics in the 1970s for both boys and girls, and goal ball, which is not a conference sport, but is gaining interest, in 2001.
In 1967, Ken Tapp was hired as the first orientation and mobility teacher at the school. This was the start of recognizing travel training as a component on a formal basis in the curriculum.
In the mid-1970s, the enactment of special education laws which required individual education plans (IEPs) and provided educational services at the local level (PL 94-142) required that referrals to WSBVI had to be made by the local school district. This legislation impacted the school in terms of enrollments, which began a decline, and increased the collaboration with local educational agencies to provide quality services in either the local district or at WSBVI.
In 1962, children's summer programming was initiated with a vocational program in piano repair, but lasted only two years. In the 1970s, children's summer school was again attempted, focusing on college preparatory skills. This lasted about seven years. In the late 1990s, the current children's summer program was re-established. This summer program focuses on vision skills not available in local school districts, including orientation and mobility, Braille, technology, and daily living skills.
Attempts have been made in the past to close WSBVI. In1950, a proposal was made to close the school, but was soon dropped. In 1997, the DPI State Superintendent proposed that WSBVI be closed. Following legislative hearings and testimony by alumni, staff, and visually impaired persons, the Legislature decided to retain WSBVI, and also created the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The Center's goal is to provide education services to blind and visually impaired children throughout Wisconsin. By working with the local school districts to offer technical assistance, staff development, and Braille and large print materials production, WCBVI serves as a clearing house and resource for visually impaired children, their families, and their schools throughout Wisconsin. WSBVI remains an important part of these resources, providing residential school services and summer school programming.
This brief history of the School was written by Tom Hanson AAWSBVI Alumni Association