Six-year-old Paige Strickland is eager to do the same things other kids in her class do, like writing with a pencil and making a rainbow-colored crab from a paper plate. She's proud to share the songs she can play on the piano. She's also learning skills her classmates don't know, such as how to read Braille and walk with a cane.
"Did you know your cane helps you, but you can trip people?" Paige explains as she shows off the "big girl" cane she recently began using. She walks through the kitchen of her family's north Raleigh home, moving the padded tip across the tile floor while her mother, Jennifer Strickland, looks on from the breakfast table.
Later, Paige picks up one of her storybooks and scans the raised characters of the pages with her fingers as she reads aloud. Learning Braille is hard work, she and her mother agree. "Working is very tiring," Paige says.
When Paige was 2 months old, she was diagnosed with bilateral optic nerve hypoplasia, an underdevelopment of the optic nerve, which sends signals between the eye and the brain. A related condition, nystagmus, causes her eyes to move involuntarily. While not completely blind, Paige can only see objects that are about an inch from her eyes. The cause of ONH is unknown, and there is no treatment or cure.
"I basically mourned for six months when she was born," says Strickland. She had never met a blind person and had no idea how to help her daughter—nor any notion of what future her child would have.
Strickland found solace in the help she received from the Governor Morehead School for the blind, which sent teachers to her home each week, helping her figure out how to do simple tasks like feed and play with her 3-month-old child. "They brought tons of information out to me. Any time I had a question, they were constantly there with an answer for it. It was like a friend sitting there, helping me."
Paige attended the Governor Morehead Preschool program from age 2 until age 5.
Today, Paige is a rising first grader at Durant Road Elementary School. Strickland believes the expert intervention and intense one-on-one instruction Paige received at an early age made it possible for her to be successful in a public school. "My child would never have been ready for kindergarten had it not been for preschool services," Strickland says.
Yet, the future of the Governor Morehead School is uncertain.
North Carolina faces an unprecedented budget shortfall of $4.6 billion, and state legislators are drafting deep budget cuts to education and health and human services programs that would affect thousands of people statewide. Teachers and teaching assistants could lose their jobs, Medicaid patients could lose their dental coverage, the dying could lose their hospice care.
As part of those cuts, House budget writers have proposed to close the Governor Morehead School, which they estimate would save the state $5 million a year.
State Health and Human Services Secretary Lanier Cansler says his department was instructed by House leaders to cut $1.2 billion. "That's unprecedented. It's historic in size. It moves us back several years in funding levels while we face a growing and aging population in the state. It's really a major issue for us to figure out how to keep as many services and meet as many needs as we can to meet a 20 percent reduction in our funding."
From that perspective, Governor Morehead School—along with the North Carolina School for the Deaf at Morganton and the Eastern North Carolina School for the Deaf at Wilson—look like good targets for budget cuts. Enrollment has dropped at all three schools over the years and now stands at roughly 250 students combined. Just 63 attend Governor Morehead School.
Each school costs about $10 million a year to operate, Cansler says. "At what point in time do you decide we can't continue to spend $10 million a year for a declining number of students?"
Under the House budget proposal, GMS would stop accepting new students this year. Some existing students would move to their local school districts. The rest would move, with their teachers, to one or both of the state's schools for the deaf, in Morganton and Wilson, within three years.
Advocates for the deaf and the blind are concerned that merging the two groups will hurt the students.
"You're going to be uprooting children and families from their community structure," Julia Leggett, executive director of The Arc of North Carolina, says of the proposed closure. "The combinations of schools may not provide the same level of services for the children."
Herb Pickell, past president of the North Carolina Association of the Deaf, has been closely watching the budget process. He said via e-mail that the plan to transition more deaf and blind students into public schools is a great concern. "The professionals, leaders, parents and consumers became very upset as all of the children who are now at the three schools were initially referred to these fine schools by the [local education agencies] due to very limited resources or expertise locally."
"These are hard times," says Mary Styres, vice chair of the GMS board. "We know that cuts have to be made, and we certainly want to take our lumps. But to put the children together is just not the answer. Blind children learn one way and deaf children another way. It would put us back in the dark ages."
There are also many unanswered questions about what closing the facility will mean for the programs and teachers housed there, questions that highlight a budget process in which lawmakers have limited knowledge of the programs in question and not enough time to find answers.
Legislators must make difficult decisions based on the lines on a spreadsheet. But behind each line of cost are programs that help people—some children, some elderly, some indigent—in ways budget writers may not be aware.
The number of GMS students Cansler cited comprises only those enrolled in the school's K-12 program; about three-quarters of those live on campus. The preschool program serves nearly 800 children across the state. It's unclear what would happen to the preschool program under the plan, or to the outreach programs that served 3,000 public school students this year.
"Those are questions I can't answer exactly right now," Cansler says. "The provision basically says, start making plans, and that's something we haven't done yet. We would continue to review and try to provide necessary and important services. The idea is to do things more cost-effectively as opposed to not do them."
Likewise, Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, one of three chairs of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, said she was unaware that the GMS preschool program serves nearly 800 children statewide. "Our committee was not briefed on that by our staff," she said. Like Cansler, she could not speak to its fate under the proposal.
How to make the smartest cuts—to eliminate the duplication of services while leaving essential ones intact—is always difficult, and is all the more so in a year when the list of cuts runs many pages long.
"The budget process isn't any shorter this year than in previous years, but we've had to do a lot more work in that time," Insko says. "So it's been difficult to have an adequate review of what the impact is."
That puts the burden on advocates to lobby legislators with information in order to save programs.
"It is true that when we put something in the cut list, that's when we hear more about it," Insko said. "I think it's important for people to have time to get this information to us."
Strickland is the president of a statewide support group for parents of blind and visually impaired children. She says many of the parents she talks to are deeply worried. Even those whose children are now mainstreamed are concerned about how the cuts will impact the preschool program and other extended services.
A short-term outreach program that offered summer-camp-style instruction in assistive technology, independent living and other skills to 200 kids across the state has already been suspended and is on the cut list under the proposed House budget.
"I feel sometimes they look at all these services and just start cutting without seeing how it's going to affect people," Strickland says.
She recently heard from the mother of a 2-year-old who attends the preschool program. "Our child is born into this world blind, but we're not experts. We're just as blind as they are because we don't know what to do to help our child. So we turn to the experts, which is Governor Morehead. If they cut these services, parents will be lost."
"By faith, not by sight," has been the GMS motto since the school was founded in 1845. Its multi-acre campus sits on rolling, wooded hills along Ashe Drive, near Hillsborough Street and N.C. State University.
GMS has adapted as society has changed its approach to caring for people with disabilities. Decades ago, children with disabilities were warehoused. Today, the school's mission is to prepare children to enter mainstream society—whether that means starting kindergarten or living as independent adults. Where once students learned mattress-making and chair-caning, today's vocational training includes call-center work using screen-reading software.
School Director Barbria Bacon says that while the campus provides a protected environment for the students, its real advantage is being located in the city. "The key for the education of the visually impaired is that they have accessibility to the environment. In places like Raleigh, Charlotte, places where they have buses and taxicabs, we can teach them how to travel and get around."
Blindness is an increasingly rare condition in developed countries like the United States because of advances in medicine that prevent and cure diseases that cause blindness. Premature birth was a leading cause of blindness until neonatal intensive care units were able to address the problem.
But as medical advancements save children of fragile health who might have died a few decades ago, those children can also face a variety of developmental challenges. About 60 to 70 percent of blind and visually impaired children have some disability in addition to their vision—anything from a mild speech delay to a severe neurological condition.
That means that while there are fewer children who need the services GMS provides, those who do need those services often have compounded developmental challenges that require educational resources their local school districts sometimes can't provide.
Preschool graduates, who, like Paige Strickland, are developing normally can succeed at public schools that have staff and facilities to teach visually impaired children. They spend most of their time in a regular classroom, but are pulled into a different class for daily instruction in Braille reading and writing, orientation and mobility, occupational therapy and assistive technology. The teachers and staff of GMS often support teachers of the visually impaired in the public schools through the outreach program.
If GMS is closed and the outreach program is also cut, advocates wonder how public schools will fulfill children's needs.
The Raleigh campus is also home to N.C. Central University's training center for teachers of the blind and visually impaired. "We have some of the leaders in the field of blindness," Bacon says.
House leaders are now considering a set of tax increases that would provide additional revenue that could offset cuts to health and human services and education.
But with so many other crucial services in line for funding, that may not be enough to save the Governor Morehead School.
Insko said the short-term outreach program is already on her wish list of programs to restore if more revenue is added to the budget, and she said she would look at preserving the preschool program. But, as for keeping open the GMS campus, "Even if HHS got some money back, I don't know that that would be among our top priorities."