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April 26, 2006

McAllen program caters to deaf students

From: Monitor, TX - Apr 26, 2006

Daniel Perry
Monitor Staff Writer

McALLEN — Gerry Charles laid the stack of photographs out on a table in his Brown Middle School classroom for the students to see.

Charles, a world history, language arts and mathematics teacher, wanted to show the students the photographs of their recent Spring Break trip to Washington, D.C.

The children grabbed the pictures of themselves in front of monuments, government and historic buildings, and with their friends.

But there were no chattering youthful voices shouting “Look at me.”

Instead, there was a flurry of hand signs.

The students are part of the McAllen school district’s regional day school program for deaf students. Classes are also taught at Escandon and Seguin elementary schools and Memorial High School.

The district accepts students from Rio Grande City to Mercedes; this year there are 122 students participating in all grades.

Students from outside the McAllen school district must work with their local district’s special education department or Easter Seals Rio Grande Valley for admission into the 25-year-old program.

“We don’t necessarily put out the word that we are here,” said Alma L. Garza, the local program’s coordinator. “All the special education departments know we are here. I have to keep them informed and up to date with what is happening with the program.”

Fourteen teachers are split up among the four schools. But most students do not stay with the teachers all day.

“Our primary goal is to get the students’ skills where they are able to access as many regular classes as possible,” Garza said. "Those who do not would remain with a self-contained deaf education teacher. We do have many students that are mainstreamed for part of the day or up to most of the day. It depends on each individual child.”

Even though the school district uses 13 interpreters in the middle and high schools, Garza said finding qualified people has been difficult — a trend both statewide and across the nation. She said people can be hired and get a temporary permit from the Texas Education Agency and be given three years to pass the Board Evaluation of Interpreters.

“The more skilled an interpreter is, the more information a student gets,” Garza said.

Another statewide issue is funding. Brent Pitt, a director of services for the deaf at the state education agency, said the state Legislature has not made changes to funding since 1995.

The student population is tied to how much money the McAllen program gets. The day school does not get financial support directly from the district; instead, money comes from the state and also from the 19 area school districts paying attendance tuition for students.

The program’s budget is $2.8 million for the present school year, Garza said. Of that, $1.3 million is from state funds and the rest comes from tuition. Garza said the program lost $128,000 for the 2005-2006 school year because of a slight drop in students.

“It is starting to really hurt,” Pitt said. “That’s probably not something unique for services for students that are deaf or hard of hearing.”

The program seems to be quite an asset.

Amber Webb, a non-deaf teacher at Brown, teaches eighth-grade mathematics for all students, and deaf-specialized language arts and science. She said some of her deaf students tend to have good study skills, but their reading and writing abilities generally develop more slowly than non-special education students’.

“What I love the most is history and reading,” eighth-grader Jesse Mendez, 13, said in sign language through an interpreter. “I learn, but I want to pass the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills).

Another eighth-grader, Angelita Ruiz, 14, said through her interpreted sign language that she likes science and language arts. She is looking forward to attending Memorial this fall, where she wants to play volleyball, softball, basketball or soccer.

Her goal is to attend Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. — the only all-deaf and hard of hearing-geared undergraduate institution in the world. Fifteen of the middle school students, and their teachers and parents, visited the university as part of their Spring Break field trip.

Charles, who is one of three teachers in McAllen’s program who graduated from Gallaudet, said he wanted the trip to the university to inspire students and let them know what kind of options they have beyond graduation.
Daniel Perry covers Edinburg, education and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach him at (956) 683-4454.

© 2006 The Monitor and Freedom Interactive Newspapers of Texas, Inc.