Brattleboro’s Austine School graduated a class of four students Tuesday, in what could be its final commencement. The 100-year-old school for the deaf announced in April that it would close at the end of the academic year because of financial problems. School officials say they hope to regroup and re-open in 2016.
Outgoing alumni association president Michael Carter expressed hope that Austine School would make a comeback.
"This is not goodbye, please don’t misunderstand that," he told the gathering in American Sign Language. "It’s a, 'See you later, see you soon.'"
The decision to close has forced the families of some 20 students to make new educational plans. Tuesday’s graduation was also the last day on the job for about 60 Austine employees.
Austine president Bill Gurney said enrollment in deaf residential education has declined steadily since federal law began requiring public schools to meet the needs of children with disabilities.
"In the late '70s there were probably 140-150 students on campus," Gurney said. "And today we’ve hit that critical mass where the number of students weren’t able to sustain the programs."
Gurney, who became Austine’s president a year ago, will lead the effort to help the school find a more sustainable model. There is still a need for schools where deaf children can interact freely with teachers and peers in American Sign Language, he said.
The school’s umbrella group, the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, will remain open. Its offerings include audiology services, interpreter referrals and outreach to students with hearing loss around the state.