History of the New York Institute for Special Education
As we complete our 185th year of operation, it brings me to the thoughts of the original founders of this Institute. The 1932 Annual Report had this to say about them:
“In what spirit and with what purpose a hundred years ago a group of generous souls began a movement for making the way of the blind full of the light of knowledge we are to judge by what few records are left of their words and acts. That the spirit was truly philanthropic is evidenced by the nature of the men who were responsible for providing a means whereby the blind might develop their mental powers, for they who led the movement were men known in the community for unselfish service.”
We were formed in the mind of Samuel Wood upon seeing the treatment of the blind at the City Almshouse and brought to fruition by Samuel Akerly who organized a group of benevolent citizens to incorporate the Institution. The Board of Trustee sought out the help of Dr. John D. Russ to be the first teacher to education the blind at a formal institution in the United States.
On March 15, 1832 he brought three boys out of the Almshouse to the home of a widow on Canal Street. Two months later, 3 more boys were added and the school relocated to 47 Mercer Street. As the same annual report states, “it was all experiment…the teacher a novice, the methods and apparatus especially adapted to instructing the blind had to be discovered or procured”. It is these humble beginnings that are at our roots and our mission is as it has always been to provide an excellent educational program so that our students become contributing members of society.
It was James Boorman that provided the school with the financial foundation that over the years lead us to our current home on Pelham Parkway. In 1833 he gave the school a large unoccupied house and property that was a long country ride by horse carriage. The city had not yet opened and paved the streets, the property lacked city water and sewers. What we did not know was that this land would, upon the expansion northward of the city, become 33rd and 34th Streets between 8th and 9th Avenues.
It took the Managers 50 years of trying to finally relocate the school to Pelham Parkway after trying to move to several locations including Washington Heights, Bronxville and Yonkers. It was fate that brought us to the Bronx for it was the sinking of the Titanic that made the property available after the death of John Jacob Astor.
A young Grover Cleveland was a teacher in 1854 and he befriended a woman that would become the leading hymnist and poetess of her time, Fanny Crosby. Our graduates have gone on to become teachers, lawyers, university professors and authors.
The Institute from the early days provided educational programs to individuals who were deaf-blind. In 1963-64 there was a Rubella epidemic in the United States. The Institute provided outstanding educational programs to over 100 children who were deaf-blind as a result of the Rubella epidemic. As these students started to graduated in the late 1980s the Board of Trustees created a long range planning committee to look at the future of the Institute. After many and lengthy discussions a vision for the future emerged. The Institute would diversify and create three schools on the campus, each with its own distinct program. The program for the visually impaired continued and is known as the Schermerhorn Program. In the new organization, a program for children with emotional and learning needs was created and is known as the Van Cleve Program. The Readiness Program opened in Frampton Hall and provides educational opportunities for children ages 3 to 5.
With these changes, the name of the Institute was changed from The New York Institute for the Education of the Blind to The New York Institute for Special Education. The new corporate name took effect on July 22, 1986. The Board of Trustees wanted to be a key player in the education of children beyond New York and a decision was made to begin Cornerstone, a program to promote literacy in selected schools around the United States.
The changes at the Institute have been many over the years but the focus has always been on the students and assisting them in becoming independent young men and women.