Barbara Schindler enters with her erect posture and close-cropped, curly hair streaked with gray. She's wearing a plain, high-buttoned dress and showing the strong bearing gained from all she ever wanted to be in life: an old-fashioned schoolmarm.
With no kids in the room, her disciplined demeanor relaxes into broad grins at the thoughts of their occasional antics. And her easy smile lingers even longer when she describes, with pride, the strides her students have made.
"Just look at this," she says, sliding a child's open scrapbook across a table. "Here was the trip to the petting zoo. We've been on field trips to the grocery store, the beauty shop -- we even made bath salts kits and sold them to other teachers to raise the money for lunch."
Those might be typical endeavors for most pupils or teachers. But Barbara Schindler and her students are blind. She fought back from the loss of both eyes to acquire teaching degrees and other tools -- braille, sign language, Spanish and more -- for her work in educating at-risk blind students at Hamilton Middle School.
Now Schindler's fighting back against what she feels is a worse personal crisis. In response to budget problems, HISD stripped her of that teaching job and gutted the special education life skills program for the visually impaired. She believes those actions will lead to the meaningless warehousing of the blind in the school district.
"Sometimes we have to stand up for things we believe in," Schindler says matter-of-factly. "I feel like this is wrong. So I'm going to have to do what I can to keep this program open."
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act and related laws, the handicapped are afforded the same rights to educational opportunities as those without disabilities. Attorney Elaine B. Roberts explains that blind students are supposed to reap benefits similar to those of the overall student population.
In HISD, there are about 300 blind students. With some assistance, many of them are able to cope in regular classes. For blind kids with other problems, HISD has relied for about 20 years on the special Visually Impaired Life Skills Program, in which students receive basic instruction along with intense training in how to become self-sufficient in a world they cannot see.
Something as simple as a breakfast of eggs can be a mystery to blind kids. "They don't have the basic concept. They can't see how Mom is preparing it -- cracking the egg, scrambling it, putting it in the frying pan," Schindler explains. "They just know it's there. It takes a lot of experiencing." She relies on a "hands over hands" routine to introduce students to everyday chores, such as washing clothes, cleaning house, dressing and making the bed.
Schindler found herself facing those challenges fairly early in life. She'd been a tomboy growing up on a farm and ranch in the Hallettsville area west of Houston. A deeply religious woman, Schindler received her degree in education and lived and taught in a convent in San Antonio in her quest to become a nun. In 1968, she had a minor infection, although the treatment -- a penicillin shot -- almost killed her. Schindler's body reacted by shutting down. She came out of her coma a week later with badly scarred corneas. That began the long fight to retain her sight, with scores of operations ending with the removal of her second eye in 1984.
Rather than withdrawing, Schindler set out to do even more with her life. She set out to experience -- even if she couldn't see -- Europe, touring the Catacombs and cathedrals in a religious pilgrimage of sorts. "I wanted to see so bad," she admits. "But the trip came to center more on why I was there. I think I got more out of it than most people."
After her return, she got a job as a receptionist and began volunteer work and teaching to help others with disabilities. Schindler got her special certification to teach the visually handicapped after serving as an HISD volunteer in braille and related courses.
Three years ago, she became the teacher in the special life skills class for the visually impaired at Hamilton Middle School. HISD operated a similar program at Lockhart Elementary School. Friends say that, along with her educational background, the biggest benefit she brought to students was simply being a role model -- showing them that a fellow blind person could excel in life.
When the aide for one of her blind students failed to arrive to take him to his next class last year, Schindler found his cane and got her guide dog Baja. The three of them set out and located his classroom. "When he came back to the classroom, he had so much confidence," she says.
Schindler relied on aides for the students for some of the work, but she was largely self-sufficient. Her students ranged in number from six to the two she taught last year. She tells of putting up with budgetary shortfalls -- she had to buy computer equipment and other materials. And there were indications that the district was neglecting the program: The classroom had broken floor tiles and even mice, which were particularly scary for the blind children. The room had no running water either, hampering efforts to teach kitchen skills and requiring Schindler to buy her own drinking water for the students.
However, nothing prepared her for last March, not even this cryptic message from Hamilton principal Roger Bunnell for her to attend a meeting with him and others: "It has been brought to my attention that there will be some changes in the Visually Impaired Program for the 2003-04 school year."
Without discussion, Schindler, who had received good reviews for her teaching performance, was informed that HISD was shuttering the program and, along with it, her job.
HISD officials make no apologies for abruptly ending the special Visually Impaired Life Skills program at both Hamilton and Lockhart. Rather than training focused on the blind, the district has now consolidated that program in with ones for other kinds of disabilities.
Spokesman Terry Abbott notes that only one blind student was "projected" to enroll this year in Schindler's class, and two in the Lockhart program. The students will be "appropriately served" in the life skills programs at their home schools, he said in an e-mailed response to questions about the closures.
Abbott termed the changes a "collaborative approach" that would result in the least restrictive learning environment for the students. "The district is providing a more inclusive service delivery model for these students in their home communities to prepare them for a more independent integration with non-disabled students" was his statement.
Other officials have said that budget cuts were behind the moves. Superintendent Kaye Stripling ordered a 20 percent reduction in spending. Schindler's salary was about $35,000 a year, although Abbott said information on the total impact on the budget from the changes was not available by deadline. The blind students, he said, will receive as many teaching hours as before.
As for the end of Schindler's assignment, Abbott said the teacher was offered another position. And the rodents and other problems with the classroom were "addressed by facilities management" after Schindler brought them to the district's attention, he said.
That official line infuriates Schindler and her attorney, Elaine Roberts. The lawyer notes that Stripling's edict was to prioritize spending cuts in areas not directly involved with students and classroom instruction. The bureaucracy is largely intact, Roberts says, while the reductions came in fundamental teaching. Scanning the district's budget, she says the entire special education program for Hamilton is about $1 million for this year -- while the school has $6 million slated for "renovation and beautification of the campus."
The attorney says Schindler was indeed offered another teaching job -- it was the position at Lockhart that was abolished by the district when that life skills class for the blind was ended. Meanwhile, the district has retained teachers with less experience and fewer credentials.
Schindler also scoffs at the district's claims that blind students can be successfully lumped in with other handicapped kids, especially with the budget cuts. The visually impaired had been receiving daily classroom help in basic life skills, and now the district is relying on traveling "itinerant" teachers to focus on the special life skills needs of the blind only a few hours a semester. In fact, Roberts says, this instruction will average out to about a minute a day for some of the students involved.
Still, the district says consolidation of the programs will affect only about three students. Roberts notes that HISD could have simply combined the visually impaired programs at Hamilton and Lockhart. She also believes that enrollments of the blind students will rise again, and that parents of the affected children were not even given the opportunity to challenge the closure.
Meanwhile, blind students are expected to interact with those who cannot hear or talk or have severe learning disabilities. That mix simply won't work, Schindler says, because the needs are too specialized.
"It is done out of convenience rather than to help the children," Schindler says. "They say no child will be left behind -- I feel like these children are being left behind."
Roberts says the best investment is solid training and education for the blind now, so they will be productive in the future. "If they don't get their training, they are going to be wards of the state for the rest of their lives," she says. "I don't know how you can measure that in the personal cost to them or to society as a whole."
Schindler has pressed forward on dual fronts to protest the dismantling of her job and the special program. Administrative hearings were held earlier this month on her challenge. A hearing officer will make a recommendation to the HISD school board on the issues.
Attorney Roberts also has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, accusing the district of systematically violating laws governing educational access for the disabled.
The complaint says that HISD repeatedly failed to provide her with the necessary equipment, materials and environment to do her job effectively, right down to rats eating plants the children had planted as part of a class project. In another eerie allegation, Schindler complains that supervisors would also enter the room and monitor her classes without telling her or the students. Abbott called that "a standard process of classroom quality control." The complaint notes that, unlike Schindler and her class, teachers and students with vision would obviously know when an administrator was in their midst.
While the fight concerns a seemingly small number of parents and students, Schindler has picked up allies in her efforts.
Cynthia Allen, the mother of a 14-year-old girl who is blind and deaf, is infuriated by what she calls HISD's lack of concern for the disabled students. Allen says her daughter regressed in her learning after she was subjected to an inadequate general skills program for the disabled at Grady Elementary.
"It was a joke," she says, disputing the district's contention that this was its way of "mainstreaming" the disabled in with the other students.
The mother says HISD never even told her of the special programs at Hamilton and Lockhart. The Grady classroom was supposed to teach the full range of life skills, yet had only a microwave and a toaster oven. Allen herself paid $400 for the basic computer equipment to help the children, and offered to raise the funds for a fully furnished classroom with kitchenette and complete furniture and appliances.
"They thought it was a terrific idea," Allen says. "But they never followed through on their end." She says administrators even blocked her daughter's application to attend the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The itinerant instruction was lacking or missing completely for her daughter, Allen says.
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HISD spokesman Abbott discounts Allen's version of events. He says she was told of the options for her daughter and that the district provides all necessary equipment and supplies for students. He says the state school for the blind was the one that rejected the application and insists that students will receive adequate itinerant instruction.
Allen says she finally transferred her daughter this year to the Spring Branch district, which she says maintains a well-equipped and well-staffed life skills program.
"I'll tell you from the bottom of my heart that this [new HISD] program isn't going to work," she says. "The reason it won't work is that children need to identify with their peers, especially blind children. Why doesn't HISD accept the fact that blind students are different -- that their needs are different?"
Allen says it is a case of the district disenfranchising the most vulnerable of its children and families. "These kids are already at the bottom of the barrel," Allen says. "And now I believe they are taking them and sticking them under the barrel."