A century ago, two Minneapolis schools served students with vision loss

A century ago, Minnesota’s schools offered few if any options for disabled children. Many youngsters had to leave their families and go to state schools. Or children stayed home and get little if any education. So it’s interesting to look back at what was happening in Minneapolis Public Schools in 1922, and how students with disabilities were taught. 

Larger school districts had more resources to help children with disabilities. The public schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul at that time emphasized that students with disabilities stay within their school system. Students were discouraged from attending state schools. 

In Minneapolis a century ago, students were assigned schools by disability. While Michael Dowling Elementary is the best-known of the Minneapolis schools with accommodations, other schools met specific student needs. Longfellow and Corcoran elementaries deserve the time in the history spotlight for their years of service to students with visual disabilities. Blind students and students with limited vision were in mixed-age classes at the two south Minneapolis schools. 

Education of these students was described in one of a series of articles by Minneapolis Journal reporter Kathleen Flynn. A sign of times was that Flynn was identified in an editor’s note as a “young woman member of the Journal’s reportorial staff” and not simply as someone covering the schools’ beat. Just as Flynn drew on stereotypes for her subjects, she herself was stereotyped as the “girl reporter.” 

One sign of the times Flynn’s flowery first-person news writing style that at times was meant to engender pity in readers. At other times, young students were held up as brave and inspirational.  

“Even the little blind child has his chance in the Minneapolis public schools,” the article began. Flynn wrote in a first-person style, describing how she saw students at Longfellow and Corcoran schools who had an array of visual disabilities. Those students took their place “side by side with the best of pupils.” 

Flynn spoke for integration of visually disabled students into the public school system, so that the children learned to take their places in the world. 

One focus in the news story was a young woman with visual disabilities named Cora, who had progressed through the ninth grade without learning her lessons. Flynn described that as “unwise indulgence.” “The day of reckoning care when she entered high school” as Cora couldn’t do the work. 

Cora worked with a “special” teacher at Corcoran, with adaptations for the classroom chalkboard. Math problems were chalked out on a dark curtain, with large numbers. That made the numerals stand out more. Other accommodations consisted of wide-lined paper, dark lead pencils and school books with large type. 

Longfellow was the school for students who were blind. Braille materials were widely used, including a large Braille library. Students learned to touch-type to write their lessons. Raised maps were used to teach geography. 

Music training was offered, as were gym classes meant to “instill grace and freedom of movement” in students. 

Educational changes meant the two schools were used as neighborhood schools for most of their history. Longfellow’s building marked its centennial in 2018. It is now an alternative learning center for high school students. Corcoran closed in 1975. Despite neighborhood opposition the building was torn down and its site converted for park use. 

The History Note is a monthly column produced in cooperation with the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Past History Notes and other disability history may be found at  www.mnddc.org