Perkins School debuts new building that will greatly expand access for students
Boston.com, March 2, 2011
By Megan McKee
Watertown's Perkins School for the Blind today unveiled the next chapter in its prolific 182-year history by dedicating a brand-new 54,000 square-foot building administrators say will give 60 of its younger students superior access to communication, mobility, and learning opportunities.
“The new building is completely accessible for every one of our students,” said Rob Hair, the educational supervisor for Perkins' Lower School.
If Lower School students can get around independently, they can navigate anywhere in the building on their own, said Hair. Covered walkways ensure the students—ages 6 to 14—can independently travel between residences and classrooms.
The former Lower School building, a 100-year-old Gothic-style building, had numerous limitations, said Hair. The building couldn't adequately accommodate wheelchairs. Lighting and acoustics weren't optimal, and only one part of the building was retrofitted with an elevator.
The old building is now being renovated and will house apartments for older students and accommodations for out-of-town visitors, as well as dining services, when it's finished next year.
The new Lower School has a fan-less, silent air conditioning system that's common in Europe, but rare in the United States, said Hair. This will ensure students can hear as well as possible, he said.. And low-hum fluorescent lights are on sensors to minimize their use while optimizing natural light, which is superior in helping visually-impaired students to see, said Hair.
Classrooms are larger and more specialized, and offer more opportunities for students to learn independent-living skills, he said.
“I think the greatest thing of all the things is teaching the kids to be as independent as possible,” said Hair. “Right along with independence, technology has been a great equalizer.”
Hair talked about how technology and computers has opened up an explosive amount of opportunities to visually-impaired people.
He also talked about how a computer helped staff members at the school realize an nonverbal autistic 9-year-old boy could read.
“We discovered that in the old building. The new building itself makes it even easier” to discover these things, said Hair. “We continue to teach him reading and math, which he loves.”
Wi-fi Internet access is no longer encumbered by the brick construction of the old building, which means the kids can easily cruise the web on their Braille computers, said Hair.
And the building is likely to receive LEED certification at the silver, or second-highest, level. The new building's roof has 108 solar panels and has a section with perennial plants to naturally cool the building during warmer months. The gym floor is made of bamboo, and trees and shrubs were saved and relocated during the construction process.
Wednesday was the official 182nd anniversary of the school, which is the first school for the blind in the country. The school moved to its current location on the Charles River in 1912.
Helen Keller was a student in the late-19th century, and the school is credited with creating the test in 1920 that proved blind people are just as intelligent as seeing people.
Starting in the 1980s, the school expanded the populations it serves starting with visually-impaired people who have disabilities. Today, the school also serves seniors who have lost vision later in life, and provides comprehensive testing for infants and toddlers.
Construction of the new building and renovation of the old building will cost a total of about $30 million, according to the school.
Megan McKee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Watch us on Chronicle's "Buildings That Work." The day after the dedication the Chronicle Program filmed a segment about the new buildling featuring interviews with teachers, students, and members of the construction team. Watch the segment online.