Alumni from the shuttered Austine School for the Deaf in Brattleboro want the state to reopen the facility as a state school for the deaf.
The group also wants a re-evaluation of outreach programs that have placed deaf and hard of hearing children into mainstream programs at public schools.
James Tucker spent seven years as a deaf student in public schools. Then in 1974 he went to Austine as a freshman. Speaking through an interpreter, Tucker says being in a place where everyone used American sign language saved him from a life of isolation and unhappiness.
"I understood my teachers for the first time, I understood my classmates for the first time. I had a girlfriend for the first time,” he recalled.
Tucker went on to a distinguished career in deaf education. He’s now superintendent of the Maryland School for the Deaf. When he learned that the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Austine’s parent organization, had closed because of financial troubles, he says he had to act.
Tucker is an organizer of a rally scheduled for Saturday in Montpelier. He’s expecting hundreds of people, many of them deaf and hard of hearing.
“We want the state of Vermont to take over, absorb the debt and turn Austine into a school for the deaf with oversight from the governor’s office. We have a petition on line," he said. "We have almost 1,400 signatures.”
State officials say that isn’t likely to happen. Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding says he knows many Austine alumni care deeply about the school that made such a big difference in their lives.
"But that was then, and things are different now. I would be very surprised if any governor and the legislature with all the financial challenges we have and the reality of… the IDEA would think that reopening the Austine School as a state-supported school would be right and realistic," Spaulding said.
IDEA is the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, instituted in 1975. It requires school districts to meet children’s right to a public education. The law ushered in the era of “mainstreaming” students with special needs in public schools.
Tucker says the law benefited many children -- but not necessarily deaf children.
“Deaf children need a community of learners where deaf children can communicate with other people who use sign language. That’s how learning happens," he said. "When you’re in a group you learn group dynamics …politics, all the little things that you pick up when you’re growing up."
The trends towards mainstreaming has led to shrinking enrollment at residential schools for the deaf around the country. Some of them have closed.
But Tucker can name 100 that are thriving. His school, the Maryland School for the Deaf, has 500 students and is funded by the state.
Austine had 20 students when it closed. Only four were from Vermont. The state-funded outreach programs that were run by its parent group served 600 mainstreamed deaf or hard of hearing students around the state.
That program, and another for hearing-impaired infants and their parents, were interrupted when the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing closed earlier this month.
“The outflowing of support for these services was very validating,” said Terry Keegan, who directed the center’s outreach programs. The state will resume those programs in October under a new contract agency. Keegan believes mainstreaming has worked for deaf and hard of hearing students.
She also noted that Austine had well over 100 students when Tucker was there in the 1970s. She says there were no cochlear implants then to restore hearing, or other new technologies now available to public schools.
“Times have changed. There’s a lower incidence of deafness, parents are … opting for medical intervention for profoundly deaf babies. And while parents might initially use sign language to bridge the gap, that’s not how parents are choosing to educate their children.”
But Tucker, the Austine graduate, and his fellow alumni think many of those students might be candidates for a new, state-run school. He says he plans to ask the state to study that possibility.