By The Gazette Editorial Board
The 150-year-old Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School closed its residential facility on the Vinton campus last year. Now there’s talk of doing the same with the Iowa School for the Deaf in Council Bluffs. It’s among several issues involving the two schools’ future that a study committee is evaluating. Budget constraints and determining the most effective programs are driving the review.
We hope there’s no rush to end residential services for Iowa’s approximately 1,800 deaf students. Comparing the situation at the School for the Deaf to the Sight Saving School reveals substantial differences.
While closing the residential facility for vision-impaired students was not welcomed by some families, its time had come. Of about 500 students served by the school’s programs statewide, only five were living in the residential facility during its last year. Of the $4.9 million the Braille school received in state funding, nearly half was spent on the residential program alone.
The School for the Deaf has seen its residential student numbers drop, too — by half in the past decade. The decline is largely responsible for the rise in tuition cost, now a hefty $88,000 per student per year even with some staff layoffs and other cuts. Still, more than 100 students still lived on campus during the past school year.
Most important, some of the challenges faced by students with hearing loss differ from those with vision problems — primarily, the communication barrier.
That’s not to diminish the hurdles that students with vision disabilities face. However, students with hearing impairments who are placed in traditional classrooms with hearing peers often must rely solely on an adult interpreter to understand their teachers, most of whom aren’t trained in American Sign Language. Even in today’s more inclusive public schools, isolation is more common because a deaf student often is the only child in the classroom with a hearing disability and thus can have difficulty understanding and bonding with other students.
Those concerns seem to be reflected in the level of resistance to closing the residential facility in Council Bluffs. So far, among parents, alumni and others, the opposition to closure has been more extensive than when closure of Sight Saving School’s residential unit was being debated.
Supporters of the Council Bluffs residential facility defend what they say is its role in providing a campus culture vital to their children’s growth and success.
The argument is not clear cut, though. Some research indicates that deaf students in specialized schools may miss some of the benefits of being “mainstreamed” into a traditional classroom (if enough support is available). There, they are more exposed to the “hearing world” where spoken language is used predominately. Students can learn how to adapt to certain challenges and to advocate for themselves in settings that are tailored more for hearing students and teachers. And they live at home full-time with their parents and family, who can provide unmatched nurturing and support.
The study committee members are looking at the residential issue as one part of the picture. Within the next few months, they’ll recommend actions to the Board of Regents, which oversees the two schools as well as Iowa’s public universities.
The committee is considering several options other than closing the Council Bluffs residential facility. They include establishing several regional centers around the state, merging services for both groups of students into a single campus, or moving services to a more central location.
The overall goal is to ensure equitable, effective services for all students across the state, according to Patrick Clancy, recently named superintendent of both schools.
That goal is important. So is efficiency with taxpayer dollars. But most important is how to best serve a student population with distinct needs. And that may well include retaining a residential option for some.
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