IM this article to a friend!

June 20, 2004

Starting at the Beginning

From: Las Vegas Review-Journal, NV - Jun 20, 2004

Las Vegas Charter School of the Deaf works to expand educational opportunities for the hearing impaired


In the Las Vegas charter school movement, the newest trial balloon is a proposal for a school for the deaf.

Friends of the Las Vegas Charter School of the Deaf is a nonprofit organization formed in 2002 whose goal is to found a school to serve the estimated 500 local children and teens of school age who are hearing impaired. Informally, supporters have been researching the idea of a school since 1999.

The Friends are raising money and searching for a facility to lease. They plan to open a program for preschoolers by fall 2005 at the latest, according to Elaine B. Haines, the president of Friends.

The vision calls for a school that teaches the deaf via signing, so they can establish a strong language foundation that will then help them acquire English, which many linguists consider a separate language from American Sign Language.

Short-term, the proposed charter school would add kindergarten and primary grades one and two to the preschool. Long-term, it would expand up to grade eight.

Originally, the Friends wanted to launch a school in fall 2004, but it is proving difficult to find 5,000 square feet of space that fits both safety codes for schools and the group's budget, Haines says. One property they visited, and rejected, was available for $12,000 in monthly rent. The Friends hope to find something for $5,000 a month, according to Carolyn Bass, another board member, who translated Haines' signing into spoken English.

The Friends of the Las Vegas Charter School of the Deaf have been slowly raising funds for several years, primarily by a monthly arrangement at a local restaurant. If a patron visits New York Pizza & Pasta, 2400 S. Jones Blvd. between 4 and 9 p.m. on the second Thursday of the month, and mentions the charter school's name, then the restaurant donates 15 percent of the accrued tab to the nonprofit. It has raised $11,800 to date, according to Haines.

In addition, the Friends recently formed an affiliation with For Kids Now, a new local organization that is in the process of obtaining nonprofit status. Designed to raise funds for various youth-related causes, For Kids Now is taking on the charter school as its first beneficiary, according to Bob Feeney, who founded For Kids Now.

Haines, 66, is a retiree who moved here from the Washington, D.C., area in 2000. She is deaf from birth, the only member of her family who is.

She does not view herself as an educator. For 30 years, she helped run a family business that sold visual-alert systems for the home to people with hearing impairments. As a young woman, she attended Gallaudet University, but left to get married.

What brought Haines into the charter school movement was a visit several years ago to Valley High School. She went with an adult friend, who is hearing impaired.

Lucille Hazan, the friend, stays in touch with several Valley High students who have hearing impairments. Hazan had been a classroom aide when those students were in elementary school. Hazan also is a member of the Friends of the Las Vegas Charter School of the Deaf.

"To my surprise and dismay, I couldn't understand what they (the teens at Valley High) were signing," Haines recalls. "They were using a form of sign language which is nonstandard. They're used to each other. But when they grow up, they're not going to be understood by the deaf community."

Further, the Friends believe, deaf and hearing-impaired youth who learn only limited English -- because they have a weak base in signed language -- will have greater difficulty finding jobs and independence as adults.

Cynthia McCray of the Clark County School District disagrees with the group's characterization of local public education for the deaf and hearing-impaired, as well as the situation at Valley High. But she defends their right to pursue a charter school.

"I believe as a district we offer a full-service education for our students," says McCray, the district's director for low-incidence disabilities.

A charter school would, in McCray's opinion, widen educational choices. "I have no qualms about what they're trying to do -- offer parents more alternatives."

In the district, two elementary schools offer Total Communication programs for the hearing impaired, which includes instruction in signing. Six elementary campuses offer oral-aural programs that emphasize lip reading and other nonsigning forms of communication.

Two middle schools have programs for the deaf, one in Total Communication, the other in oral-aural techniques.

Two high schools also have programs for the deaf: Valley High is designated for Total Communication, Cimarron-Memorial High has an oral-aural program.

As to what Hayes may have encountered on her visit to Valley High, McCray answers: "I don't know what to say to that. All I can say is we teach using American Sign Language," the standard form of signing in the United States.

Hearing-impaired students are mainstreamed in local public schools, if and when their language proficiency permits. Mainstreamed students can be assigned an interpreter, who must be a Registered Interpreter of the Deaf.

The interpreter attends class and "transfers the information (from the teacher) to the student," Haines says. But the interpreters are not trained as teachers and cannot adequately assess whether a student is actually absorbing the content.

"An interpreter is not designed nor intended to be a teacher," McCray says. But "they have the responsibility and latitude to clarify" what a teacher is saying, based on the hearing-impaired student's grasp of the subject matter being taught.

People in the charter-school movement here such as Haines say Clark County's approach to educating students with hearing impairments results in a low graduation rate for that population. Seniors who cannot pass the proficiency tests that Nevada requires for graduation can receive, instead, an "adjusted" diploma showing they have earned all the academic credits required for graduation.

District records show that for 2004, two deaf or hearing-impaired students earned a full diploma and seven the adjusted diploma. For the four-year period including 2004, 14 students graduated with full diplomas and 19 graduated with adjusted diplomas.

"In a way, yes," Haines answers, when asked if the charter school group has an adversarial relationship with the school district.

All charter schools are entitled to state funding in the form of the per-pupil expenditure, which is determined by a school's enrollment.

Haines says she told Craig Kadlub, the district's director of public affairs and liaison for charter schools, that the district is wasting its dollars on misguided education of the deaf. "It's a sad thing to say, but the children aren't learning," she says.

Haines went to an "oral" school for the deaf -- where lip reading is emphasized -- for her first four years of schooling. Her parents, dissatisfied with the results, then switched her to a school that focused on signed language. Both schools were in the Washington, D.C., area.

Nevada is one of three states that have no school for the deaf. The others are New Hampshire and Nebraska, which recently closed its school because of low enrollment.

Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal, 1997 - 2004