Friday, August 7, 2015

Former Public School 24: Part I

The now abandoned elementary school built on the south side of Martin Luther King Jr. Park was one of the first projects I worked on at Preservation Studios.  Initially called P.S. 59 in our project folder I ran into a major issue during my research. It appeared there were multiple P.S. 59’s and the school we were researching, located at 787 Best Street, had once been called P.S. 24. It was a conundrum. Which school was I researching? Why had the school morphed from P.S. 24 to 59? In seeking the answer tot his question I dove deep into the school’s history. In doing so I discovered first that we were in fact trying to preserve P.S. 24 and second, we were looking at one of the most important school buildings in Buffalo, a building whose past programs are worth recounting. As one of the first sites for special education in Buffalo P.S. 24 carved out a unique place in the city’s education history.

In the twenty-first century we champion events such as the Special Olympics and binge watch a T.V show about a blind lawyer fighting crime in Hell’s Kitchen. It’s hard to imagine our generally accepting and inclusive attitudes towards those with physical or mental handicaps as extraordinary. However, looking back at the tail end of the nineteenth century it is frankly uplifting to see how far we’ve come.  

Prior to 1900, most children with disabilities (both physical and mental) were treated at specialized facilities, such as the State Institution for Blind Students in Batavia, which formed in 1866.[1] In North America and Europe the prevailing belief was that mentally handicapped, blind, and deaf children were “biologically and morally inferior,” and as a result many of the earlier institutions of care and education were religiously based. [2] Handicapped students were educated in the trades because factory labor was oftentimes seen as the best employment they could gain. Children with profound mental illnesses were often times sequestered from the outside world by their own families or taken in at asylums run by the state or religious organizations. Fortunately, these attitudes began to change as child labor and mandatory school attendance laws were passed. The handicapped began to find themselves increasingly educated in schoolhouses, albeit in separate classrooms, but it was a marked improvement from the isolated vocationally and religious focused education they’d been receiving in asylums throughout the country.

In Buffalo, P.S. 24 took the lead in first educating the visually impaired and later became one of the earliest training centers for children and young adults with severe learning disabilities. Through our research we discovered that P.S. 24 was the local headquarters of sight-saving classes in the Buffalo school district. Students would do oral exercises with their classmates, before heading to special courses where reading and writing would be taught with larger fonts and bigger writing implements. The school even offered Braille classes for high school students.[3] By the 1940s students were being bussed from around Buffalo to attend sight-saving, and braille classes in P.S. 24.

Where once children were isolated and educated to become productive workers rather, by the 1940s people had revolted against the idea that blind and deaf children were profoundly different, i.e. ineducable and morally deficient. In studying the evolution of education for the physically handicapped it was fascinating to see the evolution of American education practices. At the start of classroom integration it seemed that visually impaired students finding success in the classroom was greeted with pleasant surprise. The transition would be much slower for students with mental handicaps, however once again it would be at P.S. 24 leading the way in education for the profoundly mentally handicapped children.

Stay tuned for Part II…
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[1] Margret A. Winzer, The History of Special Education From Isolation to Integration (Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 1993), 317.
[2] Winzer, 171.
[3] “Sight-Saving Classes for School are Given Praise by Group,” Buffalo Courier-Express, February 22, 1934, 11. Accessed 7/1/15 via

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