Expansion of NSU-SDSBVI partnership could have national impact on education

NSU students in the SDSBVI Braille course

ABERDEEN, S.D. – For almost 60 sixty years, Northern State University and its across-the-street neighbor, the South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (SDSBVI), have enjoyed a collaborative relationship not found elsewhere in the nation.

“The proximity of the SDSBVI to the NSU campus supports a unique partnership that enhances both programs,” said SDSBVI Superintendent Dr. Marjorie Kaiser. “Our long-term collaboration doesn’t exist elsewhere in the country and holds potential for further growth of the programs and opportunities for students.”

Now, the recently announced Educational Impact Campaign will expand that decades-long partnership. The campaign seeks to raise $45 million to construct a new School for the Blind and Visually Impaired; new athletic and recreation fields that will be utilized by both schools; and an on-campus regional sports complex at NSU.

More than that, the collaborative project will also create new educational possibilities that could help lessen a national shortage of educators of the visually impaired.

“The location of the SDSBVI and our strong affiliation with the school provide opportunities for students in our teacher education program to engage in classroom and residential experiences that they could not find elsewhere,” said Dr. Kelly Duncan, dean of NSU’s Millicent Atkins School of Education. “I am especially excited about the opportunity to expand our Blind and Visually Impaired Teacher Education program nationwide. Dr. Marje Kaiser’s colleagues from across the country have encouraged her to continue to promote our work as they have a dire need for faculty with this specialized area of expertise.”

Partnership Began in 1961

The two schools have enjoyed a close partnership since 1961, when the School for the Blind and Visually Impaired moved to Aberdeen from Gary, S.D., Duncan said.

“The proximity of the two schools creates many opportunities for NSU students to have classroom and residential experiences working with students who have vision loss,” Duncan said. “SDSBVI facilities and equipment are utilized during the NSU Adapted Physical Education course. Special education faculty utilize speakers from the SDSBVI in their courses and take students to the school to complete field experiences.”

Kaiser said the partnership has involved many collaborative efforts, including:

  • SDSBVI faculty have served as adjuncts to teach courses for teachers relating to vision loss (for over 50 years).
  • The two schools have worked together to establish training for para-professionals working with blind students in public schools (Braille), and to update course offerings in vision.
  • SDSBVI often has student teachers in its classrooms and also hires NSU work-study students, especially in the residential program.
  • NSU provides employment for SDSBVI students through Project Skills, a state-funded program offering students with disabilities an opportunity to gain work skills.
  • SDSBVI students go to the NSU campus for mobility training, including climbing stairs and using elevators.
  • SDSBVI often has student volunteers and observers in physical education and other classes.

NSU sophomore Nikki Schmidt, a special education major from Willow Lake, is taking a Braille course at SDSBVI taught by Tevan Fischbach.

“It is a great opportunity to be part of the partnership between NSU and SDSBVI,” said Schmidt, who is pursuing an endorsement in visually impaired teaching. “Being able to work first-hand with the students and teachers will really benefit my future as a teacher.”

Educational Impact Campaign Details

The Educational Impact Campaign, which received approval from the South Dakota Board of Regents last fall, has already received pledges for donations totaling more than $25 million. The project is expected to begin this fall, when NSU’s Jerde Hall will be demolished and construction will start on the new SDSBVI, which has a projected completion date of fall 2019.

At that point – in fall 2019 – the current SDSBVI will be demolished. By spring 2020, construction will begin on the regional sports complex, which will include Dacotah Bank Stadium and Koehler Hall of Fame Softball Field. Completion is expected no later than 2022.

These state-of-the-art facilities will enhance the student experience for both schools for years to come, but NSU President Dr. Tim Downs said it’s even more exciting that the project could have such a far-reaching impact.

“I’ve used the phrase ‘game-changer’ for a reason, and that’s not only for our two campuses,” Downs said. “The educational benefits of this collaboration truly have the potential to extend nationwide.”

Enhanced Educational Opportunities

With the Educational Impact Campaign, Kaiser said SDSBVI and NSU both see opportunities to enhance the visually impaired teacher education program, expanding it to meet the need of a national shortage. “Ultimately, we’d like to offer a master’s program for teachers of the visually impaired,” Kaiser said.

Duncan said NSU is the only university in the state that offers the coursework leading to an endorsement as a teacher of the visually impaired. Some of the courses NSU offers are also required for Braille instructors and paraprofessionals providing Braille instruction.  

“There is a tremendous need nationwide for individuals to receive specialized training and degrees which qualify them to provide educational services for those with visual impairments,” Duncan said. “With the high need in this area, NSU hopes to capitalize on our partnership with SDSBVI and expand our offerings to include a program that would provide the coursework necessary for individuals, regardless of their current location, to take this very specialized program of study.”

Putting Aberdeen on the Map

Duncan said the expanded program will include coursework delivered through distance/online mediums along with practicum and internship experiences at the School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. 

“We eventually will be bringing in educators from across the country for these onsite experiences, and this will put Aberdeen, South Dakota on the map in terms of education for the blind and visually impaired,” Duncan said.

Kaiser said SDSBVI is also excited about the opportunity to expand its program for transition-age students, to ensure they have the skills necessary to live and work successfully in their communities.

“We will be able to attract students from the surrounding states,” Kaiser said. “We will be able to demonstrate current technologies and environments that meet the needs of students with vision loss and teach teachers how to be prepared for this diverse population when they reach the classroom.”

Architects Bring Unique Experience

SDSBVI has engaged the architectural firm TSP from Sioux Falls, whose presentation was titled “Taking Architecture Beyond the Visual.” TSP will be working with Julie Walliesa, who did the earlier project conceptual work, and Christopher Downey, an architect who lost his sight in 2008.

Kaiser said the combined expertise of this unique design team brings many benefits.

“Among other projects, Julie brings experience working on 11 earlier projects at schools for the blind and understands orientation and mobility training, flexible and welcoming environments that support cane use and sensory wayfinding,” Kaiser said. “Chris did the design work on the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind and knows first-hand how tactual and acoustics elements can impact a building. He pays attention to details that impact the ease of navigation and aesthetics. In their presentation, he explained the way they designed the stairs and stair rails in the San Francisco Lighthouse to better serve their clients.”

For more information about the NSU-SDSBVI collaborative project, visit NSU Campus Master Plan or Educational Impact Campaign.

About Northern State University

Northern State University is a regional university that offers outstanding academics and exceptional extracurricular activities at an affordable price on a safe, welcoming campus. Northern State recently announced its Educational Impact Campaign, with a goal of raising $45 million for a new South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, new athletic and recreation fields, and an on-campus regional sports complex. Once the campaign is complete, NSU will be the recipient of more than $100 million in privately funded building projects and scholarships within a decade. To learn more, visit NSU Admissions