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July 8, 2004

State deaf school turns back onto track

From: Oregonian, OR - Jul 8, 2004

Enrollment stabilizes at the Washington School for the Deaf as a new superintendent makes student safety a top priority


VANCOUVER -- It's been a year -- as the school cycle goes -- and Todd Reeves can breathe two sighs: One of relief that his first academic year leading the Washington School for the Deaf has ended successfully, then one of contemplation, as he ponders the future for himself and the school.

In that year, the 43-year-old superintendent has amassed supporters including representatives of the school's board and the governor's office.

They commend Reeves' changes and policies, among them student conduct protocol that includes staff training and creating unobstructed lines of communication among administrators, students and parents. They also applaud the track on which Reeves has placed the state-run public school and his plans to increase its programs.

"Overall, we are pleased with the efforts and progress being made at the school and with the re-establishment of positive management practices," said Tom Fitzsimmons, chief of staff for Gov. Gary Locke, who also noted "an overall improvement in the standards of oversight and care for students."

Locke selected Reeves in August to take over the residential school and center for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. The previous superintendent resigned in February 2003 amid a controversy over the school's ability to provide a safe environment for students.

"I came here thinking about safety," said Reeves, who was diagnosed with progressive hearing loss at 13. "The most important thing to keep in mind is that safety is a constant concern. It's always on the minds of the staff."

When it comes to improving safety, Reeves said he simply increased the focus of school staff. Everyone underwent training on how to better deal with students and on legal practices concerning special-education students.

Dual degrees

"Todd knows what the law is," incoming Board Chairman Larry Swift said of Reeves, who in 1996 completed dual graduate programs at the University of Washington's School of Law and the Danforth Educational Leadership Program. "He has put into place policies and procedures and staff training so we are comfortable."

Reeves has been directly involved in any student-related behavior incidents, no matter how minor, Swift said.

Reeves also has been quick to report to the board any incidents related to student behavior as they happen.

During the school year, a female student left campus without permission, with plans to leave the state. Reeves' system of immediate notification of trained school staff made it easier to find the student and address the matter without immediate expulsion, Swift said.

That Swift knew about such a relatively minor incident is progress in itself, observers said.

In October 2002, after a governor-appointed panel released a report on safety concerns at the school, some board members said they were surprised at some of the detailed incidents. They said they were not informed of them by previous Superintendent Leonard E. Aron.

Particularly, the report outlined a meeting Aron arranged between a girl and a male student she accused of assaulting her. The girl eventually withdrew from the school after making suicidal statements.

"I can say this with confidence," Swift said. "Since Todd has assumed the superintendency, the board has been informed on all of these issues."

Enrollment springs back

Concern about the school has seemed to quiet at the state level as well.

"We have not heard from anyone" worried about safety at the school, said Kari Burrell, Locke's executive policy adviser, adding that the situation is a change from previous years.

In the 2003-04 year, after three years of decline, enrollment rose for the first time since 1999 -- albeit slightly. The school recorded 171 students during the 1999-2000 school year, when news broke of trouble at the school. The next year, enrollment dropped to 140, then to 118 in 2001-02. Last June, 105 students were attending.

The school year that ended in June included 112 students. Two of those students were Reeves' children.

Without a hearing aid, Reeves can carry on a conversation with relative ease. He said he can hear the bass of a voice and concludes the rest of the words by watching mannerisms.

The task is easier in his office, which has a firm carpet and solid walls and is small enough to allow good acoustic flow, he said, than in many of the school's classrooms.

Reeves said he would like to see changes made in the school buildings, with their wide rooms where sound does not flow well. But renovating the Grand Boulevard campus will take time, and Reeves is going to start small.

Plan on back burner

He decided to postpone a $28 million master facilities plan that called for rebuilding as many as eight of the campus' 12 structures. In recent years, legislators have been reluctant to finance building projects for the school because of its declining enrollment in a slow economy.

Reeves admits the difficulty of securing state funding for an institution serving fewer students. Instead, the school will focus on three buildings: the cafeteria, boiler room and maintenance building.

"No matter how many students we have here," Reeves said, "we're still going to need these buildings."

Reeves has started mapping the future of the Washington School for the Deaf's programs. The school plans to increase outreach programs that serve the state's deaf and hard-of-hearing students in public school districts.

Even if student enrollment does not pick up, the services to deaf and hard-of-hearing students must increase, Reeves said.

In the past year, the school has tripled, from five to 15, the students statewide it serves with its evaluation services, including a psychologist specializing in deaf education. The school then helps the home district develop a curriculum for the student.

"We have to make sure we can move forward in the various programs we provide even to students who don't attend this school," Reeves said.

Jason Begay: 360-896-5719 or 503-294-5900;

© 2004 The Oregonian. All rights reserved.