IM this article to a friend!

March 27, 2004

School for the Deaf faces extra challenges

From: Kansas City Star - Kansas City,MO,USA - Mar 27, 2004

School must meet same state test requirements in spite of language barriers

By NOEMI HERRERA The Kansas City Star

While students learning English as a second language may struggle to meet state testing standards, children like fourth-grader Justin Meador face an even bigger barrier.

Justin had virtually no language skills when he enrolled at the Kansas School for the Deaf eight years ago. He is among a group of students — making up 60 percent to 70 percent of the state school's population — who enrolled without a fully developed language, said Larry Finn, school improvement coordinator.

Nevertheless, the state school, like all public schools, is expected to meet requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act or face penalties.

"I wish the law said all students will reach their 'potential' because potential varies for every student," Finn said. "I hate to put all kids in the same box. Judging our multipurpose school on the basis of one test is not fair."

The Kansas School for the Deaf failed to meet reading requirements in 2003. Results from this year's testing, now under way, are expected May 15.

At the school for the deaf, all students are English language learners. For deaf students who come from a home where English is not spoken, English becomes a third language, behind American Sign Language (ASL) and the language spoken at home."We have some students who come to us with a fully developed language, American Sign Language," said Finn, who has worked at the school 30 years.

It is the students without a fully developed language who must deal with enormous barriers.

Justin, who came to the school with limited language, is profoundly deaf and has a heart defect.

For students like him, the foremost objective is to teach American Sign Language. As students slowly build strength in ASL, teachers begin to teach English.Deaf children can be without a first language if they have a disability in addition to being deaf, such as autism, Finn said. But the more common reason is because the deafness was not identified early enough, he said.

Justin's deafness was identified immediately after birth, but he was not exposed to ASL during his early years at home. Like many deaf people, Justin was born into a hearing family.

From the moment of birth, children should be in an environment where language is accessible, said Sandie Kelly, education consultant for the school for the deaf.

"From birth to about 8 years of age, a child develops skills in social language and academic language," she said. "When a child has not had the opportunity to fully develop these skills, academic success can be very difficult."

For children whose families do not speak English, the learning process can become more complicated for teachers and confusing for students.

Kelly used an example of a student with a hearing, Spanish-speaking family.

"When they (students) are at home and see only Spanish, but at school they're seeing only English, you can see how very confusing that can get," she said.

Teaching English to a deaf student is complex because it entails eight components: fingerreading, fingerspelling, reading English text, writing English text, typing English text, lipreading, speaking and listening.

Kelly Grove, whose daughter Mary is a third-grader at the school, understands the difficulty of teaching English to a deaf child.

"ASL is a completely different language than English," she said. "To understand a written question, you have to understand the English language."

Because Mary began learning ASL before she came to the school, she is doing well learning English, "but she's beginning to write it and she's struggling," Grove said.

Despite the challenges in meeting No Child Left Behind standards, Finn credits the state with recognizing the difficulty his school has in making adequate yearly progress.

Students at the school for the deaf are classified by the government for testing purposes as a disabled subgroup, which gives the school some testing accommodations, such as special lighting, enlarged text and modified test language. But Finn said no test is perfect.

By 2013-14, the No Child Left Behind Act mandates that all children meet proficiency standards in reading and math. This year, 57.3 percent of students in grades 5 and 8 must meet standards in reading and 53.5 percent of grades 4 and 7 must meet math standards. In grades 9-11, 51 percent of 11-graders must meet proficiency standards in reading and 38 percent of 10th-graders must meet math standards.

"We need to meet the law whether we agree with it or no," Finn said. The state has done everything possible to help the school make requirements – more training, more time to improve scores, curriculum support and strategies, Finn said.

Finn points out not all deaf students perform academically lower than hearing students.

"We have students who can meet and exceed hearing student standards," he said. "My only objection: It's difficult, if not impossible, to get 100 percent of anything. To have 100 percent of students proficient by a certain year is unattainable."

Although the school did not make the required yearly progress standard based on last year's reading tests, parents Grove and Meador stand by the school.

"It's a very special school," Grove said. "We have to keep it in perspective. We can't be making blanket statements for all children."

Meador calls the school a miracle place because of its staff and programs, and because the school teaches kids who have disabilities in addition to deafness.

"They have done well in addressing kids like my son," she said. "There are very bright kids in there."

© 2004 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.