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June 23, 2005

Laurent looms large

From: Sioux Falls Argus Leader - Sioux Falls,SD,USA - Jun 23, 2005

It's time to look at the long-term future of the South Dakota School for the Deaf

Published: 06/23/05

A new study of the proposed town of Laurent - the McCook County city designed specifically for people who use sign language - generally is positive.

But it also throws a new wrinkle into the discussion. What about the South Dakota School for the Deaf?

The study, by Joe Bartmann, Greater McCook Development Alliance director, addresses a number of concerns brought up earlier by opponents - impact on land use and business, for instance - but also raises a new question. It wonders whether the School for the Deaf, in Sioux Falls, could handle all the new students.

If there was reluctance before to seriously discuss the school's future, this might change that attitude.

The school ended a period of turmoil late last year, with the department of Superintendent Jon Green and appointment of Maureen Schloss as his replacement. A group of parents had demanded Green's departure. They complained of his management style and leadership and said he was hostile toward staff who promoted deaf culture. They also said he discouraged students from attending institutions for the deaf.

Schloss has great credentials. She was an associate professor of education at Northern State University and came from Buffalo State College, in the State University of New York system. She was a full professor there and special assistant to the chairman of the Department of Exceptional Education. She earned a Ph.D. in special education from that university and a master's in education of the hearing impaired from Gallaudet University.

It would have been the perfect time to take a look at the school's future and answer several questions, including the critical one: Do we need to keep the school open in its current form?

Enrollment is 61 students, with 209 in the outreach program. Some are in both programs and not all are full-time students, so it's difficult to fully assess enrollment.

But that 61 students is down from a high of 120.

Other states have seen similar declines, and some have closed their schools. Some have merged with those of other states.

Now, we have the town of Laurent looming. So far, 120 individuals and families are on the reservation list to buy or rent homes in the new town. Population estimates go as high as 2,500 in the next 10 to 15 years. One other estimate is that 40 to 60 percent of the school-age children will be hearing students.

So what does that mean for the School for the Deaf?

"We don't know the extent to which (programs) will be affected by the Laurent project," Schloss said. "If they tell us they will have 100 (students), that is something to take to the Board of Regents.

Tad Perry, executive director for the Regents, which supervises the school, says 100 additional students would be no problem at all. No additional state money would be needed - the budget is about $3 million - no major adjustments.

That seems unlikely.

But despite Perry's rosey assessment, surely this is the right time to take a look at the school's future:

Do we need a residential campus for 60 students?

Should the focus be on support and outreach?

Should we merge with some other state to provide a larger residential campus and then continue to provide support and outreach services here at home in South Dakota?

How would the town of Laurent - assuming it's eventually approved by McCook County commissioners - affect any assumptions and decisions?

Regents and school officials have been reluctant to look at the long-term future of the school. But now, surely, it's time to do just that.

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