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Schools work to comply with code

Oct. 15, 2007 @ 07:26 AM

HUNTINGTON -- Many of Cabell County's schools are more than half a century old, built at a time when the country hadn't recognized the need for buildings to be accessible to the disabled.

But times have changed, and the district is working to bring each of its schools up to code. Right now, only 18 of the district's 29 schools are accessible and completely compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. By the start of the 2009 school year, only Enslow and Beverly Hills middle schools and Peyton, Salt Rock, Meadows and Cox Landing elementary schools will remain handicap inaccessible, with two others -- Davis Creek and Ona elementary schools -- only partially accessible.

However, after spending $60.5 million for five new schools that are expected to open that August, it could be a while before those facilities can be tended to.

In Cabell County, new schools and consolidations have been going on at a steady pace since the 1980s, a whole decade before the Americans with Disabilities Act required all new construction to provide access for those who cannot use stairs and those in wheelchairs. Still, Superintendent William Smith says the district has a long way to go.

"It's a slow process, but it's something the government didn't expect us to do overnight," Smith said. "I think we've made great strides on this issue."

Buildings built before Jan. 26, 1992, were grandfathered in, but it also was expected that upgrades would be made or new facilities constructed. Since the Title II accessibility requirements were enacted, the Cabell County school system has worked to ensure that all students, parents and teachers with physical disabilities would have as much access as possible.

"In the early '90s, the district replaced Huntington High School and Huntington East High School with the new Huntington High School and (replaced) Barboursville High School and Milton High School with Cabell Midland High," said Jedd Flowers, director of communications for Cabell County Schools. "And, in the early '80s, the district replaced Simms, Ensign and Emmons elementary schools with the current Spring Hill Elementary."

Flowers, who has been with the district for seven years, said just in the time he's been there, Pea Ridge and Barboursville elementary schools have been replaced with Village of Barboursville Elementary; a new school was built in Guyandotte; and Central City Elementary was the product of the consolidation of Jefferson, Johnston and Washington elementary schools.

In two years, the Cammack campus will house Southside Elementary and Huntington Middle School, replacing the old West and Miller facilities (which are housing the new schools this year). And, Smith already has brought up discussions of consolidating Beverly Hills Middle and Enslow Middle into one school, possibly at the Career Technology Center, which is already accessible.

Enslow, Smith said, is at the top of the list because even minor alterations cannot be done to bring the school up to code.

"Enslow cannot be made ADA compliant," Smith said, "so it will have to be consolidated."

He also said the district has put wheelchair ramps in at some schools, but the way Enslow was built, any wheelchair ramps would be too steep.

The school district also has spent money to upgrade other facilities. The board approved Oct. 2 spending $264,000 on the installation of an elevator at Milton Elementary, a project that is expected to be complete in about six months.

For Everett Perry, a Cabell County substitute teacher who uses a wheelchair, the elevator means he'll be able to sub for fifth grade, which is upstairs at the school. Perry, who carries an undergraduate degree in history and master's degrees in geography and teaching, has been trying to get hired full time by Cabell County since his West Virginia teaching license was approved in December 2006. But it hasn't been easy.

Perry said many of the positions that have opened up are at schools where access is a problem. In fact, after subbing in the spring for about a month without any problems, he got a call from West Middle School. At the time, he didn't know the school was inaccessible, but when he showed up, he realized he couldn't get in the building.

Principal Joe Brison allowed Perry to teach two of his classes in the gym, which had the only accessible door at the school. But Brison apologized to Perry and sent him home early, promising a full day's pay.

About a week later, he got a letter from the school district stating calls for any subbing jobs at the inaccessible schools would be blocked. Perry consulted a lawyer, but found that Cabell County was complying with the law as it concerns its facilities.

This past August, however, Perry was once again called by Brison, whose school changed to Huntington Middle but still resided in the same building. But when Perry asked him if the school was accessible, Brison remembered him and said the situation had not improved.

Perry believes the one chance for a full-time teaching position in his field couldn't be fulfilled because of the building's shortcomings. But he isn't bitter. He subs nearly every day, and although he does have health benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, at 43, he'd like to have a full-time position with a retirement package.

Flowers said the administration understands Perry's frustration. But there's simply nothing they can do.

"Many of these older facilities were unfortunately designed at a time in our history when the priority wasn't placed on access," Flowers said. "That's why the Americans with Disabilities Act is so important. It ensures that future facilities will be designed in a manner that is accessible."

But questions still remain. What if a parent is confined to a wheelchair? What if a teacher at an inaccessible school becomes disabled?

"We would make every accommodation we could," Smith said.

Parent-teacher conferences would be held off-site or in a part of the school that is accessible, even if it's the gymnasium. And, Flowers added, teachers would be transferred into a similar position at another school.

"When accessibility has been an issue for an employee in the past, when possible, we have made accommodations that have included moving an employee from the building where the issue exists to an ADA-compliant facility," he said. "This is above and beyond what the federal law requires."

Students, though, are given the highest priority. Special education laws require schools to take any necessary steps to keep children at their home school. That includes building temporary wheelchair ramps or having classes on floors that are accessible.

"Compared with other counties, most of our (schools) are accessible," Smith said.

Cabell County's ADA Status

Here is a breakdown of which Cabell County schools meet requirements for accessibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act and which ones don't:

ACCESSIBLE

High Schools: Career Technology Center, Cabell Midland, Huntington

Middle Schools: Barboursville, Milton

Elementary: Altizer, Central City, Culloden, Davis Creek (Grades K-4 only), Geneva Kent, Guyandotte, Highlawn, Hite Saunders, Martha, Milton (Grades K-4 only until elevator is installed in the spring); Nichols, Ona (gym not accessible), Spring Hill, Village of Barboursville

INACCESSIBLE

Beverly Hills Middle*

Enslow Middle*

Huntington Middle (formerly West)**

Cox Landing Elementary

Meadows Elementary

Southside Elementary (formerly Miller)**

Peyton Elementary

Salt Rock Elementary

*The School Board and the superintendent will be having discussions later this year about consolidating Beverly Hills and Enslow within the next five years.

**Huntington Middle and Southside Elementary will become accessible when they move into a completely renovated and rebuilt campus, which formerly housed Cammack.

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