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July 12, 2004

School for the Deaf's boss exudes enthusiasm

From: The Columbian, WA - Jul 12, 2004

By GREGG SHERRARD BLESCH, Columbian staff writer

Todd Reeves plans to travel to China this month to adopt a third deaf child, a 3-year-old girl named Ying Hong, whom her new family will call Torrey.

Reeves, who is 43, has just finished his first school year as superintendent of the Washington School for the Deaf in Vancouver.

His sons, Shay and Seth, attend the school, as will Torrey in the fall.

As Reeves opens the world to his adopted deaf children, who were abandoned thousands of miles away, he is working to do the same for deaf and hard-of-hearing children in Washington.

That means repositioning an old institution toward a relevant future, rejuvenating the residential program while reaching out to students who may never set foot on the 17-acre campus southeast of Evergreen and Grand boulevards.

Reeves was appointed by Gov. Gary Locke in late July 2003, after a 30-year trend of declining enrollment and problems with student safety caused some to question the need for the school.

"I saw the school as being on the precipice of people determining whether they needed to push it over the cliff," Reeves said before leaving for China.

He replaced interim leader John Davis, who came on board after Leonard Aron was forced to resign amid allegations of widespread abuse of students in the residential program by staff and other students.

Reeves, most recently the special-education director for the Tacoma School District, had connections to the School for the Deaf as a former teacher and trustee.

"If you're walking along an isolated beach and there's someone caught in the riptide, what do you do?" said Reeves, who uses a hearing aid to compensate for his progressive hearing loss. He is also fluent in American Sign Language.

"All I know is right now I'm swimming, and I don't know that I can bring everybody back to shore, but I know that it's a worthwhile institution."

Turning point

Sen. Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, said Reeves seems to have generated new enthusiasm for the school.

Zarelli introduced legislation addressing safety concerns at the school, responding to complaints of abuse.

"It raised the flag with some to ask the question, 'Why do we even have the school?'" Zarelli said, noting that he was never one of them. "The issue that brought us to turn our heads is behind us," Zarelli said.

But last year, the Legislature declined to approve a request for $27.2 million to overhaul the campus, although a capital facilities study found that several buildings are in need of replacement or major repairs and that the configuration of structures was ill-suited for a learning environment.

School leaders are now preparing a scaled-down request that addresses the most urgent needs.

Enrollment peaked in the late 1960s at 355 students following the rubella epidemic, which caused children to be born deaf.

The numbers dropped quickly with a federal mandate in the 1970s for public schools to serve students with disabilities and when the so-called rubella bulge reached adulthood.

In the academic year that ended in June, 112 students 72 residential students and 40 day students attended the school, a slight increase over the previous year.

That's out of an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing students in the state.

Reeves said he's determined to retain a residential program a place where deaf and hard-of-hearing students can spend anywhere from a few weeks to their entire school careers as a social and cultural resource for the deaf community.

And he said he is equally committed to expanding the reach of the school in supporting students in their home districts.

"If we don't positively impact in some capacity each deaf and hard-of-hearing student in the state of Washington, we've abandoned our legacy, we've abandoned our mission," he said.

First-year praise

People close to the school, like Zarelli, say they are encouraged by Reeves' sense of purpose and optimism.

"He has a passion," said trustee Larry Swift of Lacey, who will soon become chairman of the board. "There's no other word for it. He has a passion for the education of the deaf and hard of hearing."

Swift said Reeves, who is due for a formal review this month, has been creative in coming up with ways to serve students who don't attend the school, removing cost barriers, and then carrying the message in personal visits to educators throughout the state.

Swift also praised Reeves' expertise in the nuances of the laws governing special education.

Reeves, who has a law degree from the University of Washington, has three empty bookcases in his office awaiting a 40-volume law report on the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Melinda Orr, whose 6-year-old son, Hayden, attends the school, recalled that Reeves went out of his way to introduce himself to parents during registration.

Orr also said Reeves has been focused on instruction rather than consumed by the issues of facilities and safety.

Piper Gallucci, who has been a teacher at the school for nine years, said Reeves has boosted morale.

"The place feels better; it feels lighter," Gallucci said. "I think he brings with him a real positive view of the school, of the possibilities for the school."

All in the family

Reeves and his wife, Jodi, adopted a second son, Seth, from Thailand, and plan to adopt a daughter from China's Anhui province, near where their oldest son, Xia Jiang, or Shay, was adopted four years ago.

Reeves has a short videotape of Shay that he received from the adoption agency. He sometimes shows the tape to others as a means to demonstrate the range of starting points that children have in the educational system.

Back then, Shay's only methods of communicating were pointing and leading others by the hand.

"And that's all you see: 60 seconds of a boy that can't communicate, can't figure out what's going on around him, is interested in what's going on around him, but has no way of communicating his interests, his questions, his desires, his needs."

Now, in class or in soccer, Reeves said, Shay looks like any other other kid: "His whole world is open to him."

The School for the Deaf provides a supportive community that shows students what Reeves calls "the horizon."

"It opens up the world to people who can only communicate to one, two, three people in their universe."

Gregg Blesch writes about schools and education. Reach him at 360-759-8015 or e-mail

Did you know?

* The history of the Washington School for the Deaf goes back before statehood to 1886, when the School for Defective Youth was established in Vancouver.

* A separate institution for young people with mental disorders was established in 1891, later moving to Medical Lake, and separate schools for deaf and blind students were established in 1913.

Copyright © 2004 by The Columbian Publishing Co.