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November 25, 2002

Financial crisis prompts Portsmouth schools to examine cutback in services

From: Portsmouth Herald, NH - 25 Nov 2002

By Sara Newbury

PORTSMOUTH - The possibility of budget cuts in school districts throughout the state in 2003-2004 is forcing educators to look hard at their spending, and resources for deaf and hard of hearing students are among the expenses receiving some attention.

New Hampshire is the only state in the country that doesn’t have a school designed to educate the deaf. And Portsmouth, along with Manchester, hosts one of the two extensive deaf programs in the state.

"This is a program that is obviously going to be cut way back," said Paulette Hoeflich, director of student services. "It’s not just Portsmouth. All districts are making considerations about what services they are offering and what they are willing to buy."

The Portsmouth program for the deaf and hard of hearing has drawn students from other districts - on a tuition basis - for 25 years. It’s a K-12 program that currently serves 14 students. This year, none of the students in the program are from Portsmouth.

Historically, students have come from out of town because of limited resources in their own districts - and in an effort to bring deaf students together.

"One of the big things about a deaf program, instead of deaf services, is they are with deaf peers," Hoeflich said. "There’s an argument that it’s not just interpretive services when a teacher is teaching, it’s a social opportunity."

At a recent meeting, members of the Portsmouth school board announced the school department, along with the city, is facing a financial crisis. And Hoeflich said recently the deaf program at the elementary level is likely to be cut next year.

"It’s not just about us keeping the program open," Hoeflich said. "It’s about other districts providing services and integrating their kids into their own community."

Rochester is an example of those districts. According to Sharon Pray, director of pupil services in Rochester, her district has developed a program for deaf students so they can attend school with neighborhood kids.

"All kids with disabilities should have access to the regular curriculum," Pray said. "A lot of social skills can be gained when they stay in their own communities and they make friends in their own communities. And in the fourth grade, students are learning to sign, so it’s not only helping students who are deaf, but helping the typical students learn something new."

Pray said keeping deaf students in the district is also more cost effective than busing the students out of town.

Rochester currently provides deaf services through the Child Development Center, a private education facility, but the school department plans to take the services over next year, Pray said.

Rochester currently has two students in the Portsmouth High School program. One is graduating, and one is in the ninth grade. Pray said she’d like to bring the ninth-grader back to Rochester next year, but only if it is best for the student.

"We were sending kids for a while to programs outside of our community," said Raymond Yeagley, Rochester superintendent. "When we reached a critical mass, there were enough students in this area, so Rochester became more of a drawing point."

Yeagley said deaf services in his district are similar to Portsmouth - students have come in on a tuition basis from smaller districts. Yeagley said the program will grow.

Rochester is currently serving three students at the elementary level and has additional individual services for students in higher grades.

Donna Schefer, teacher of the deaf at Portsmouth High School, said she questions whether individual interpreters can provide the same services the Portsmouth deaf program has been providing for years.

And Claire Sheridan, teacher of the deaf at Little Harbour Elementary School, has similar concerns.

"It’s hard to be the only interpreter in a school district," Sheridan said. "For one thing, you can’t be absent. And it’s a unique group and we support each other."

There are currently 16 teachers and staff directly involved with the program in Portsmouth - including nine educational interpreters, two deaf paraprofessionals, two speech and language pathologists and one counselor.

According to Hoeflich, the program will remain the same at the middle school and high school level if cuts are made.

But students like Taylor Plodzik, 9, would be affected by cuts in the elementary program. Taylor lives in Dover and would have to return to her own district if the program is terminated.

"I would be really nervous about my daughter heading back to the Dover program at this time," said Tracie Plodzik. "I think what would happen is that she could become isolated because the Dover school system is not up to handling hearing-impaired children."

Even though Taylor can go back to the Portsmouth program for middle school, Tracie said she worries about the readjustment period.

"The scary thing is the transitioning of the students from school to school when they have such a supportive network where they are," she said. "(Taylor) is so happy at this school (Little Harbour), it would be a tremendous loss."

Dover schools offered deaf services in their own district for the first time this year, according to Jackie Adams, special education director in Dover. Adams said the services have been individual and successful.

Nicole St. Pierre was a student in the Portsmouth deaf program until third grade, when she moved to Massachusetts. Her mother Jody said the move from Portsmouth to the new public school has been difficult for her daughter.

"I don’t think we realized how much that support meant to us," she said. "In the program here (in Portsmouth), I always knew Nicole would always have an interpreter - if hers was out sick, she’d have one to cover for her. ... When we moved, it took us a year and a half to have the services set up."

Nicole is now one of three deaf students in her entire district, and the other two students are much younger than she. Jody said Nicole’s sign language has suffered because she has few people with whom to sign.

Though budget committees are working on a plan for next year, nothing has been decided about the program for deaf students or any other program, said Portsmouth Superintendent Lyonel Tracy.

"We haven’t made any definite decisions," he said. "The potential is there for us to reduce services, mainly because almost all the students we service (in the deaf program) are not Portsmouth students. We need to direct our attention to providing services to our students first. ... There’s a strong possibility that that program will be eliminated."

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