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February 13, 2005

School in transition ... With controversy quieted, new administrators pursue improvements

From: Twin Falls Times-News, ID - Feb 13, 2005

By Karin Kowalski
Times-News writer

GOODING -- It's a normal lunch period at the Idaho School for the Deaf and the Blind. Students gather around tables with their trays to eat burritos and other cafeteria food.

Chatter, both spoken and signed, fills the room.

But something can upset a table full of deaf high schoolers -- a mention of Angel Ramos, the school's former superintendent.

Students around one table answer a reporter's written questions calmly until a query about Ramos grabs the entire group's attention. Asked about the former superintendent at lunch, senior Jamilee Fletcher signs to her friends at the table, and they all begin signing rapidly. To get each other's attention, many of them pound the table with their hands.

Ramos resigned in June in exchange for a $150,000 settlement after a long period of controversy over how he ran the school. Many students and staff remember Ramos' time there, and although people make a conscious effort to move on, the subject still hurts.

Fletcher, a student there since age 3, loves the school and hopes to be a teacher at a deaf school. She said she liked Ramos, especially his rapport with the students, but the school has been about the same since he left. Still, she misses him.

People who supported Ramos say his departure took away many of the improvements he made, too. At least one person who wished him gone says the school now has the same problems it has had for years.

Perhaps more important to students than policies and strategies was the simple fact that Ramos is deaf. Cynthia Cruz, a junior, said that's the only reason some students have for wanting Ramos back.

They're quite unlikely to have their wish.

School in transition

Ramos, the school's first deaf and Hispanic superintendent, was put on administrative leave July 30, 2003, following a State Board of Education investigation into complaints and a management review. Major issues included questions about the sale of surplus property, accusations about conflicts of interest and preferential hiring, and the appearance of retaliation against detractors. Supporters said Ramos was trying to raise the bar at the school in the face of opposition. In October 2003, a group of students demonstrated on the school lawn in support of Ramos, and tensions ran high inside the Gooding school.

Today the atmosphere is much calmer.

Harv Lyter, former operations and performance officer with the State Board of Education, was installed as acting superintendent in July 2003 and became interim superintendent in July 2004.

Lyter said the emotional issues have settled down at the school, and the staff has been able to create some stability.

The school has also hired several new staff members and restructured the administration.

Janet Stout joined the school as K-12 principal last summer. She also worked there from 1983 to 1990. She spent several years leading schools in Alaska before returning.

Her position was created in the 2003-04 school year; before that the school had an elementary and a secondary principal.

She said the Ramos issue was before her time.

"It has nothing to do with me," she said and signed.

Gretchen Spooner, the director of curriculum and special services, came in fall 2004 when the position was created. She oversees individual education plans and works on aligning the curriculum with state standards. The school didn't have a unified curriculum when she started there, she said.

The staff, both on and off campus, will meet for 10 days this summer to work on curriculum.

"That's really going to make a big difference in our student achievement," Stout said.

Life at the school

On a February afternoon, Brian Alarcon, 9, took his cane and walked ahead of Mari Ramos, the teacher's aide for the elementary blind and visually impaired class. For Brian, even recess is a learning experience.

Mari Ramos -- unrelated to the former superintendent -- asked Brian to point out objects on the playground, such as the big slide. He was right every time. He found the big slide, touched it, then headed left for his favorite item, the curvy slide.

Once he reached it, he gave his cane to Mari Ramos, then faced the ladder. He climbed up slowly and slid down, his hand holding the edge.

Mari Ramos said when she started there, three years ago, Brian would only sit on the teeter-totter. Since then, she's helped him get out and explore.

Brian lives in Jerome and has always gone to the Gooding school.

"I like to come back here," Brian said.

Last year Brian learned to read Braille. He uses both hands to rub back and forth across the raised dots.

The school has three classrooms for blind and visually impaired students. The elementary class has four pupils, and the secondary level has nine. The school has magnifiers for small print and books on tape, in addition to Braille.

The Gooding campus serves 80 students, and outreach centers serve 653 students around the state. The school provides services or classes for students from as early as birth through age 21.

The Gooding campus provides both daytime and residential programs. Students live in cottages and are bused home on the weekends. Students in northern Idaho catch a plane from Boise.

For older students, the school has a partnership with the Gooding School District and sends students to the high school with interpreters.

"I can't praise them enough with their willingness to work with us," Stout said.

Students can take college courses while remaining affiliated with the Idaho School for the Deaf and the Blind. Paula Mason works for the school at the College of Southern Idaho to help students with the college transition. The school is looking at creating a transitional dorm there.

Despite lingering controversy over Angel Ramos, staff members try to focus on those tasks. Mari Ramos said the issue is still painful for many at the school.

"It's hard," Mari Ramos said. "You just do your job."

Changes at the school

Angel Ramos, his supporters say, was brought in to reform the Gooding school's quality of education. Since his departure, new administrators are putting their own marks on the school -- including various projects to improve student initiative.

For instance, the student council meets with the superintendent every month. Lyter said this helps get the group more involved.

"It kind of worked in a vacuum for a long time," Lyter said.

One of the council's projects is to repaint the blue school lockers red, to match the school colors. Stout said the students get what they want, but they have to manage the project. The school is providing the materials, but the students sand and paint the lockers in shop classes. They've already seen one row finished, and that helps to motivate them.

"We're seeing a much higher energy level," Stout said. "It's a long process."

The school is also looking toward student-led individual education plan meetings starting in the upper elementary grades, Stout said.

"Our kids need to own their education," she said. If they don't feel ownership, they blame others when they perform poorly.

Stout said a business class is also working to redecorate one of the lounges to add school colors and possibly a mural with a tribute to former Gov. Frank Gooding.

The school started its FROG after-school program in January. That stands for "Full size reform equals opportunities for growth." Stout said it's meant to expand opportunities for learning as required by No Child Left Behind. The school is on the state's "needs improvement" list for not meeting the law's benchmarks for test scores.

The FROG program, two days a week after school, is meant to improve vocabulary through games. The other two days are devoted to a homework academy -- one of Angel Ramos' innovations. School ends early on Fridays.

"We're trying to really elicit language from kids," Stout said. Many students enter school with delayed vocabularies.

For older students, FROG focuses on translating from printed English, a problem area for many students. They're videotaping stories in American Sign Language.

Reminders that remain

Besides the homework academy, a few of Angel Ramos' initiatives remain in effect. For instance, the school still has the parent advisory board that was started under him.

A reporter is not likely to hear administrators mention his name except in answer to a direct question. But visit the school's Web site, and you'll still see his picture.

Something else that remains is a few cases of parental dissatisfaction -- but the target is no longer Angel Ramos.

Kellye Whiteman, a parent with a 16-year-old daughter at the school and one of Angel Ramos' most vocal critics, said she's still asking for more speech and academics to be included in her daughter's education.

"Not a whole lot of anything has changed," Whiteman said.

Times-News writer Karin Kowalski can be reached at 735-3231 or

Quick facts on Idaho School for the Deaf and the Blind:
# On campus:
* 80 students total
* 17 blind or visually impaired
* 29 deaf
* 26 hard of hearing
* Two deaf and blind
* Six multihandicapped
* About 50 live on campus during the week
* Eight fly home on weekends from Boise's airport
* 23 academic instructors
* Five sign language interpreters, plus one Spanish-English interpreter
* 300 student population capacity
# Off campus:
* 653 students in outreach from birth to age 21. They receive services through the state or through local school districts.
* 355 deaf or hard of hearing
* 298 blind or visually impaired
Sources: Harv Lyter, interim superintendent, and Janet Stout, K-12 principal

Copyright © 2005, Lee Publications Inc.