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January 16, 2003

Deaf program staffers cowed into silence

From: Portsmouth Herald, NH - 16 Jan 2003

By Sara Newbury

PORTSMOUTH - Though the fate of the Portsmouth program for deaf and hard of hearing students is still undecided, paraprofessionals in the program are showing concern about their jobs.

The School Board faced a full house at its Tuesday night meeting. Most of the audience was quiet as the board assembled, using sign language until the meeting came to order.

At the start of the meeting - under "correspondence" on the agenda - School Board chairman Kent Lapage read off more than a dozen names of people who’d written letters supporting the deaf program. And 15 people signed up for the public commentary session - all to express the same sentiment.

Students, parents, a UNH professor, two state senators and advocates from organizations and associations for the deaf took turns at the microphone, showing their support for the 25-year-old-program that may be cut this fall.

But not one member of the program’s staff stood up to speak.

"Some of the staff are concerned that if they speak up publicly, they might be the nail that gets hammered," said Jeff Allmendinger, staff attorney for the National Education Association-New Hampshire. "They know that if all or part of the program is terminated, then their jobs are at risk. They are put in the uncomfortable position of remaining silent."

Attempts to reach Superintendent Lyonel Tracy for comments on this issue were unsuccessful.

Allmendinger was representing the 14 paraprofessionals involved in the Portsmouth program for the deaf and hard of hearing, while a handful of them sat in the back of the council chambers.

"These paraprofessionals live in the Portsmouth school district, they understand that tough decisions must be made in order to balance the budget without raising taxes," Allmendinger addressed the board. "Their only fear is for the deaf and hard of hearing students they service. What happens to these children if this program closes? Will they face a life of isolation?"

On behalf of his clients, Allmendinger extended an invitation to the school board and to members of the community to stop by and take a look at the program.

"They also want to emphasize that, for the deaf, learning with peers is critical to their success. It is critical to their success dealing with deafness and hearing impairments. It is critical to their academic success and it is critical to their instructional and personal development as students and later as community members."

Allmendinger said some of his clients grew up in Portsmouth, attended the program for years and are now working in the program.

"To lose such a program would be a terrible shame for the students," he said.

Jon Plodzik, parent of a deaf child in the Portsmouth program and advocate for keeping the program going, said her daughter’s teachers have opted to stay out of the issue.

"They asked us not to involve them because of their conflict of interest," Plodzik said. "So we don’t talk with them about it. They are nervous to speak with us. We created a stir in the community and nobody wants to do the wrong thing. I have great respect for the folks in the program and I want to honor their request."

A budget proposal and possible program cuts will be presented at the next School Board meeting on Jan. 28. A public hearing will be held for all possible program cuts on Feb. 11.

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