Education dispute flared at Faribault school 60 years ago
A dispute over education at the school for children and youth with visual disabilities made headlines in Minnesota 60 years ago. Long-held beliefs, teaching methods, and the role of the Minnesota Braille and Sight Saving School itself were challenged. Change was demanded by the Minnesota Department of Education, outlined in a 77-page report.
The dispute over the Minnesota Braille and Sight Saving School’s direction pitted longtime Superintendent John C. Lysen against state welfare and education officials.
Schools for children with disabilities were long promoted as places for youngsters to be “be with their own kind” and have resources not available elsewhere. In the late 1950s and 1960s attitudes were changing about where education should be provided.
State officials wanted more children with visual disabilities to remain in their home districts, with teachers devoted to their needs. That was written into law in 1957. It was a shift from the decades of ordering children to attend state schools.
Officials ordered the Faribault school to stop “recruiting” students with visual disabilities. An intake policy was developed that involved participation from a child’s family, the family’s local school district, and officials from the state departments of welfare and education.
The Minnesota Braille and Sight Saving School in 1962 had 91 students and a faculty and staff contingent of 64. About 80 percent of students were considered blind, with vision loss of 80 percent or more. More than 42 percent of students could read from regular or large print. In the top six grades of the K-12 program, fewer than half of the students depended on Braille. The implication in the report was that many students didn’t need to be in a special school at all.
Several aspects of the school were criticized in the report. One was the lack of individualized teaching. A second was that grade school students changed rooms and teachers every 45 minutes, a practice the report called “wretched.”
In the high school, teachers taught multiple subjects they weren’t trained or licensed in. The program was also seen as overemphasizing college prep courses and deemphasizing vocational training. One pointed criticism was that there too much emphasis on what were considered to be traditional “blind” crafts and skills, such as weaving, net tying, chair caning, upholstery and piano tuning.
Welfare Commissioner Morris Hursh called for students who could read regular print or large type materials to return to their local schools in fall 1962. He also called for comprehensive achievement testing, better record-keeping, special programs for students who had developmental disabilities, revamping the elementary school and sending more high school pupils to Faribault High School
Disapproval was leveled at Lysen, a former Lutheran minister and newspaperman who had overseen the school since 1934. The report cited his lack of training in education and said it was directly related to weaknesses in the school program.
Lysen was very well-liked so it’s not surprising that other school officials, legislators, students and parents pushed back against the report. Parents said they wanted their children at the school, reacting strongly with harshly worded letters to the newspapers that covered the report. Families said their children excelled thanks to Lysen and school faculty and staff.
One point Lysen made was that for teenage students, being at a disabilities-focused school gave them the chance to participate in high school activities including student council, sports and cheerleading. Those activities may have been denied had students stayed in their home districts.
Lysen retired a few years later and died in 1969. The school is now the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind.
Wondering about the reference to “sight saving” in the school’s former name? One now-discarded practice for people with disabilities was to spare or “save” their vision as much as possible.
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