Early Years of the Kentucky Asylum
By JoAnn Hamm
The First Fifty Years
Kentucky School for the Deaf, the fourth oldest school for the Deaf in the United States, celebrates its Bicentennial in 2022-23! Parties, commemorative events, speeches and social gatherings will attract deaf and hearing visitors from across the United States. Collecting materials for this article helped us see clearly how our school began and how far we have travelled in our quest to educate deaf and hard-of-hearing students in Kentucky.
On April 10, 1823, the Kentucky Asylum for the Tuition of the Deaf and Dumb, later changed to The Kentucky School for the Deaf (KSD), was created by the Kentucky General Assembly. KSD was the first deaf school established west of the Allegheny Mountains and the first to be supported by public funds.
The impetus for the establishment of the school came from legislation proposed by Green County Senator General Elias Barbee, whose 23-year-old daughter Lucy was deaf. The school was located in Danville and governance of the school was placed in the hands of the Board of Trustees of Centre College. Why Centre College? There is no official explanation but members of Elias Barbee’s family, including his father, John Barbee, lived three miles north of Danville at Stoney Point. His brother, Joshua Barbee, another prominent Barbee, owned what is now the Old Crow Inn and lands around it and was a member of the Centre Board. Other prominent board members included Isaac Shelby, Kentucky’s first governor, and Ephraim McDowell, a well-known physician.
In looking for a faculty, the Board of Trustees turned to Centre College and found a young student, John Adamson Jacobs. The Board sent Jacobs to the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, the first school for the deaf established in the United States, to learn from Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc how to teach the Deaf. In 1825 Jacobs returned to Danville where he taught and served as principal from 1825 until 1854, and as superintendent from 1835 until 1869. He also wrote a book on instruction of the Deaf. The National Landmark building on campus, Jacobs Hall, is named for him. This building was built in 1857 and is still in operation, now as a museum. During the Civil War, Confederate forces attempted on three different occasions to take the school over, but Jacobs was steadfast in his defense of the school, its property and its students. After the third attempt, the Confederates moved on to other parts of the town.
The Middle Years
The Centre College Board of Trustees governed the school until 1870. Then the Kentucky General Assembly established a Board of Commissioners for oversight which was in place until 1959-60 when the Kentucky Department of Education took control of the school. By the eve of World War I in 1914, most students traveled to Danville by train. Railroad companies charged reduced fares for students traveling to school in the fall and returning home in the spring. Most years KSD was in session for forty weeks, from the second Wednesday in September until mid-June. Except for students who lived nearby, there were no vacation breaks during the school year. Augustus Rogers, a Centre College graduate (B.A., M.A., L.L.D) had become the superintendent in 1896. Said Rogers: “The object of all education is good citizenship, and judged by this standard the school has not failed of its mission.” (Augustus Rogers in The Kentucky Standard, October 1914)
From 1885 until 1963, when the school was completely desegregated, there were two separate residential schools on one campus – the “White School” and the “ Colored School”. In a typical year, 1914, the White School had 324 students while the Colored School had 27 students. The White School had one supervising teacher, 24 teachers, 10 in the manual department and 14 in the oral department. The Colored School had two teachers. While enrollment at the White School steadily increased, the greatest number of “colored” students enrolled before 1920 was 60, and over the next decades their numbers declined rapidly.
The school was free to Kentucky residents. In the first quarter of the 20th century, the average annual cost per pupil to the state was $233.33. Trades and academic subjects were taught. Normally no student younger than eight or over twenty-one was admitted, and ten years was the maximum time for a student to remain at KSD. According to superintendent Rogers, “in no case will a child be kept by the School after it is fully ascertained that he can make no further progress in his studies.” (Augustus Rogers, The Kentucky Standard, Jan. 6, 1914)
Students took exams twice a year. Mastery of material and not years at KSD determined whether a student graduated. Students completing ten years who did not show mastery were granted a “certificate of completion”. Some years a dozen students graduated, but there were also years when there were no graduates. For example, during the war years 1917 and 1942 the school did not have enough money to remain open long enough for seniors to attain mastery. In addition, a large number of older male students opted to leave for lucrative employment at factories that needed workers for the war effort such as the Goodyear Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio.
By 1923, the school’s centennial year, KSD had educated over 2,000 students who became “self-supporting citizens in the communities where they have resided.” (Charles Fosdick, A Centennial History of Kentucky School for the Deaf, KSD Press, 1923.)
The typical student schedule for a school day in 1920 was:
Rise @ 5:30 a.m.
Breakfast @ 6:25
Chapel @ 7:35
School @ 8:00-12:45
Dinner @ 1:00
Trades @ 2:00-4:30
Recreation @ 4:30-5:45
Supper @ 5:45
Study (younger students) @ 7:00-7:45
Study (older students) 7:00-9:00
Young students retire @ 8:00
All retire @ 9:00
After World War II, with improved roads and lower automobile prices, cars brought students to campus and students traveled home for holidays and visited friends more often during the school year.
KSD changed its curriculum to meet the ever-changing demands placed on its students. The curriculum evolved from academic offerings to studies that combined academics with vocational trades. Prior to the Civil War, John Jacobs found apprenticeships in town for his older male students. After the War the trade school movement changed everything. The boys could pursue printing, shoe repair, carpentry, cabinetmaking, tailoring, and later, auto mechanics, and could also work on the school farm. In learning a trade they aided the school. For example, the boys in the print shop set type for the weekly newspaper; the carpenters made chairs for the dormitories; and the farm workers helped produce food for the school. While academic learning was foremost at KSD, there was a clear recognition that students also had to be prepared for the work force by the time they left school.
Girls were trained to become housewives, learning such skills as sewing, dressmaking, needlework, basic nursing, ironing and cooking. Beulah Cannon Hester remembers the practical skills the girls were taught when she was a KSD student in the 1930s and 1940s:
“We had to iron all of the clothes for the students on the campus for one to two hours a day. The irons were heated on a coal stove. We frequently burned some of the clothes and we were sent to the superintendent’s office to be disciplined….For our meals we were provided with very good food which was grown on the KSD farm. A lot of the boys worked in the gardens and also picked strawberries. The farmer became frustrated with the boys’ messy way of picking strawberries so he decided to see if he could depend on the girls to do it. Much to his delight he could. He never gave up on the girls to continue with that role.” (Letter to JoAnn Hamm in the Jacobs Hall Museum archive)
Meeting Challenges, Making Changes
In 1964-1965 a rubella epidemic swept across the United States. As many as 12,000 children were born with varying degrees of hearing loss or deafness - about a fourfold increase in the annual average. These children became school-age around the start of the 1971-72 school year. KSD enrolled 80 new students that year, most aged five or six years old. From that year until 1984, when the largest class in KSD history, 68 students, graduated, KSD enrollment hovered in the low 400’s. During this time, new dormitories, a new classroom building, a gymnasium, as well as facilities for serving multi-handicapped deaf students were built.
Coinciding with the rubella “bulge”, the 1974 Education for All Handicapped Children Act (U.S. Public Law 94-142) was implemented and, over time, led to decreasing enrollments in residential schools like KSD. The law mandated a variety of services that would enable disabled students to be educated in the way that best benefited them. When the full impact of PL 94-142 hit after 1984, enrollment steadily declined at KSD. Increasingly the educational needs of the majority of deaf students were met in local school programs.
Because students had opportunities to learn in other educational settings, KSD began a collaborative effort in the early 1980s with the Danville, Boyle County, and more recently Burgin, public schools. KSD sent students and sign language interpreters to the public schools, and hearing students from these districts could enroll in vocational classes at KSD.
Student life in the latter part of the 20th Century changed as well. In the 1970s residential students went home once a month. Today about 70% of KSD students live on campus in the residence halls. They arrive on campus on Sundays by 5:00 PM. They live on campus until after lunch on Friday, when they leave for the weekend, usually via school buses from their local school districts. Residential students rise at 6:30 AM, wash, dress, make beds and complete light chores. Breakfast is at 7:20 and school begins at 7:55. At the end of the school day, the “day” students leave for their homes and residential students return to the dorm around 3:20 PM. Sports practices, ASL tutoring, and free time after homework is done, are scheduled until supper at 5:00. After-supper activities might include trips off-campus with staff. Bedtime for the youngest students is between 8:30 and 9:30 PM. For middle school students, in-room time is 9:45 with lights out at 10:00. Lights out for high school boys and girls is 11:00 PM.
In the 21st Century KSD has met the challenges of the digital age, offering students rich coursework and experiences in the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) curriculum, as well as English and American Sign Language (ASL). Nationally, 80 to 85% of deaf and hard- of- hearing students are now educated in local public schools. However, schools such as KSD continue to meet a need that cannot be met in the local public schools. Students who attend KSD have the opportunity to be with students like themselves and are not as isolated as they might be in the public schools. And, if appropriate, they have the opportunity to attend classes, accompanied by a certified American Sign Language interpreter, in the local public schools. On KSD's campus they receive the intensive language training they need and participate in a vibrant social network of deaf and hard- of- hearing peers.
The Kentucky School for the Deaf is proud to have played a vital part in the education of deaf and hard-of-hearing students since its founding in 1823. It will continue to provide a quality education to the students of the Commonwealth of Kentucky as we move forward into the future.
(JoAnn wishes to thank Bill Melton, Mary Girard, Roger McCowan, and Michael Hamm for their assistance!)