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August 20, 2005

Deaf education at crossroad

From: Rome News-Tribune, GA - Aug 20, 2005

New administrators at Georgia School for the Deaf will have challenges waiting.

By Marc Dadigan, Rome News-Tribune Staff Writer

CAVE SPRING — Though it teemed with children her own age, Julia McGuiness' Orlando, Fla., middle school proved a lonely place.

Profoundly deaf and later to be diagnosed as autistic, Julia struggled at a school that had one teacher fluent in sign language and placed her in a class where most of the other students could hear.

"She had a wonderful middle school teacher, but I don't think they took her mode of communication into account," said her mother, Kimberly McGuiness. "I thought we could do better."

Along with her husband, Brian, McGuiness uprooted her family in 2002 and moved to Cave Spring so Julia could attend Georgia School for the Deaf, where all of her classmates and most of her teachers would be fluent in sign language.

It was a move that has made all the difference for their now 16-year-old daughter, the McGuinesses said.

"It's done wonders. Her communication and behavior have improved dramatically," Kimberly McGuiness said. "We learned a lot of the behavioral problems came from the lack of language (at the public school)."

As Julia's story shows, educating the deaf has long been an imposing and intricate endeavor that is only gaining in complexity with increased emphasis nationwide on standardized testing along with the growing practice of mainstreaming special education students.

"What works for one child might not be best for another," said Kimberly McGuiness. "We, as parents, had to remove ourselves from the equation and put ourselves in the place that was best for Julia."

Nowhere are these complexities more evident than in Georgia, where both deaf schools, GSD and the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf, are in the midst of administrative transition.

After four years at her post as director, Lillian Blakesly retired this year from AASD, and in June the state asked for, and received, the resignations of GSD Director Winfield McChord and six other educators apparently as part of a plan to revamp the school.

Reports received from the Department of Education under the Georgia Open Records Act showed accrediting agencies had criticized the school for failing to overhaul a scattershot curriculum and failing to properly challenge its students.

State officials said the reports coupled with the school's failure to make adequate yearly progress in standardized testing, as required by the No Child Left Behind Act, necessitated a response.

"My vision for (GSD) is to make it a showplace for quality education for the hearing-impaired," Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox said through a spokesman.

Yet some question whether a purge of administrators and teachers was the right move for a school that was already understaffed, facing decreasing enrollment and at times struggling to find qualified teachers.

Whether the resignations were justified, it seems deaf education in Georgia is at a crossroads, making the state's upcoming hires of paramount importance to deaf students across the state.

Evaluating deaf schools

With the enactment of NCLB, high-stakes testing has become an annual evaluation of a school's progress, with stiff sanctions handed down for schools that fail to measure up.

McChord said even before his resignation that deaf schools are by nature at a disadvantage in these types of assessments and doubts if the goals of NCLB are attainable for deaf schools without certain concessions.

"It's a fatal flaw in NCLB that it doesn't take into account the factors that affect the reading abilities of deaf students," he said.

After not making adequate yearly progress (AYP) in any category in 2003 and 2004, GSD met the standards in test participation and attendance in McChord's first full year. Its test scores, however, didn't make the cut.

AASD also hasn't met the testing benchmarks the past two years, but Kenny Moore, the interim school director, didn't indicate there was any more pressure on deaf schools than local public ones.

"The challenges facing deaf students (in standardized testing) are the same as those facing students anywhere else," he said. "It's a matter of building the necessary skills in the students to make them more successful on the tests."

Others argue that many deaf students for whom sign language is their primary way of communication can't be expected to be as proficient on standardized tests.

Sign language, which has its own syntax and grammar, is almost a foreign language compared to written and spoken English. And hearing children have the advantage of having heard words before learning to read them.

Thus, reading skills of the deaf tend to lag behind the hearing up until adulthood, said Joe Finnegan, executive director of the Conference of Educational Administrators of Schools and Programs for the Deaf.

All standardized tests are based on reading, he said, and sometimes refer to auditory experiences that have little meaning to the deaf.

"They should be expected to compete academically with hearing kids," Finnegan said. "But there need to be some accommodations, like having the tests available in sign language, and the tests need to be designed with them in mind."

Many students at deaf schools, including GSD, are coping with other disabilities in addition to their deafness. About 12 percent of students at GSD have been diagnosed with multiple disabilities, which can be anything from autism to dyslexia, and about 20 percent of the students at AASD had other disabilities, many of them mentally delayed.

"Sometimes I feel the people who make the laws don't take into account the details of these kids who are deaf," said Kimberly McGuiness.

For her daughter Julia, progress can be measured in many ways. This summer, Julia has spent time practicing simple household tasks like baking muffins or learning to use money.

"For us the ultimate goal is to make her capable of living an independent life," McGuiness said. "It's something we want so much for her."

©2004 Rome News-Tribune. All rights reserved.