The closing of Vermont's only school for the deaf has opened new debate about the best way to educate deaf and hard-of-hearing children. For decades, mainstreaming in public schools has been seen as a more enlightened alternative to residential schools for the deaf. Now some Vermonters are questioning that assumption.
This fall more than 200 deaf and hard of hearing Vermonters and their allies held a rally at the statehouse in Montpelier. The event was organized by alumni of the Austine School for the Deaf in Brattleboro. The school closed in June after years of shrinking enrollment, ushered in by laws requiring public schools to appropriately educate children with disabilities.
The rally's sponsors say a school for the deaf is needed in Vermont. Evelyn Dixon is the hearing mother of Paxton, a deaf toddler. She was one of several speakers at the rally who want the state to reopen Austine or start a new school for hearing-impaired students.
"What we are asking for is fairly simple," Dixon told the crowd. "Paxton needs a school for the deaf or more support from the school he attends."
Dixon lives in Berlin with her fiancé Zach Sherman and their two sons, 3-and-a-half year old Paxton and his younger brother Kalvin.
Dixon says Paxton was three weeks old when he was diagnosed as "profoundly deaf."
"It was devastating," Dixon says. "Deaf was a new term to us. We had to quickly think of how we were going to raise him, how we were going to speak and communicate with him, everything."
The family quickly started working with an advisor from the state's early-intervention program for hearing-impaired infants and their parents. The advisor told them that Austine School was probably going to close. Dixon says preparing Paxton to attend public school when he reached school age seemed like the best option.
"Our goal from day one — because we didn’t know any better — was, 'We want him to be like us and communicate like us,'" Dixon recalls. "So we decided we'll teach him how to speak someday. Our parent advisors taught us skills on teaching him how to tune in to us and listen and [ways of] practicing speech skills."
But Paxton still doesn’t speak. A cochlear implant hasn’t seemed to make much difference. And his family is rethinking their approach to Paxton's education.
"We were never really told our full options, I don’t think," says Dixon. "I feel like it was more of a biased opinion towards spoken language versus sign language."
The role of ASL
The early-intervention program did provide the family with a deaf mentor. She came for an hour twice a week to introduce them to deaf culture and American Sign Language or ASL. Dixon noticed that Paxton was quick to learn the visual language. Looking back, she wishes they’d spent more time learning ASL from the beginning.
"Just to give him a language," she says. "A way of communicating with us, with his peers. You know, he can always learn to speak down the road."
Even with his interpreter, Paxton's parents say he misses a lot in his public preschool. Recently Dixon attended a conference at a school for the deaf in Massachusetts. She took Paxton with her.
"He was so into it, watching everybody signing," Dixon says. "He understood what was happening! [At] Berlin Elementary school, when I drop him off in the morning, he’s screaming bloody murder when I’m trying to walk out of there."
Dixon has written to state officials about the need for an ASL-based school for children like Paxton. The response hasn’t been encouraging.
John Fischer, the deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education, says public schools offer students with disabilities the "least restrictive environment" required by law.
"This is an inclusive learning environment," Fischer says. "That’s why you will see all across the country the trends that have occurred with mainstreaming versus a residential setting."
The mainstreaming debate
Fischer points out that 650 students with varying degrees of hearing loss are currently being mainstreamed — by choice — in Vermont schools. They work with a network of consultants trained in technologies that enhance classroom learning for many hearing-impaired students.
Fischer says only four Vermont students were at Austine when the school closed. He says the numbers speak for themselves.
But a position paper by the National Association of the Deaf says public schools may not be the "least restrictive environment" for many deaf students.
"No other educational setting can offer the spontaneity and freedom of communication found in schools for the deaf," the policy statement says.
Austine alumnus Bill Hudson is a counselor for the deaf and hard of hearing at the Vermont Vocational Rehabilitation office in Burlington. Hudson, who was mainstreamed until he was 11, thinks many of his clients who are struggling now would have been better off in a school for the deaf.
"They miss a lot of the student interactions and conversations going around in the classroom and outside of school," Hudson says. "Interpreters do a good job, but they can’t catch everything — as opposed to a school for the deaf, everybody signs so you catch everything. It’s a natural environment for a deaf kid."
A new Austine?
Austine alumnus James Tucker is now the superintendent of the Maryland School for the Deaf. He also helped organize the rally in Montpelier. Tucker says Austine wasn’t providing that ideal environment when it closed. It didn’t have enough students and its academic offerings had slipped badly. He says rebuilding Austine, or a new school, would take time.
Tucker suspects that some of those 650 deaf or hard of hearing students in Vermont’s public schools would thrive at a deaf school.
"Nobody knows what’s happening with the 650 kids." Tucker says, speaking through an interpreter. "Are they reading and writing on grade level? Are they socially isolated? Are they happy? I mean, we don’t know. No data is gathered."
The data challenge
Fischer, the deputy education secretary, says the numbers of deaf and hard of hearing students in Vermont are so small that many districts have just one or two. He says it's hard to isolate information about those students without violating their privacy.
But Fischer says the educators and consultants who advise Vermont’s hearing-impaired children and their families are professionals who know what they’re doing.
James Tucker says it doesn’t make sense that few, if any, deaf professionals are part of that network of consultants. He and other leaders in Vermont’s deaf community hope that will change. They've brought their concerns to state officials and legislators.
Meanwhile, Paxton and his family are visiting schools for the deaf in other states. They say they'll move if they have to. But Paxton's dad is a fourth generation Vermonter, and the family would rather stay here.
VPR would like to talk with some deaf or hard of hearing students who are being successfully mainstreamed — or with their families. Send us a message at email@example.com.