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December 10, 2006

Idaho is restructuring how it educates children who are deaf or blind, meaning Gooding is facing an unwelcome change

From: Twin Falls Times-News - Twin Falls,ID,USA - Dec 10, 2006

Unwelcome change

By Joshua Palmer
Times-News writer

GOODING - They couldn't see or hear many of the changes going on around them, but it was obvious to the students that the Idaho School for the Deaf and the Blind would never be the same again.

At first, it just seemed like there were fewer students, but then there were fewer teachers. Life grew quiet on the Gooding campus as dormitories closed and the swimming pool shut down.

What the students didn't know is that six other deaf and blind programs hundreds of miles away were growing as fast as the Gooding campus was declining.

This is a story about Idaho's most resilient youth and a community that has supported them for almost 100 years. It's also a story about change, and how these groups will sacrifice for the benefit of future deaf and blind students.

In the past four months, seven employees have been laid off from the ISDB campus in Gooding, and resident capacity for students who live on campus has been reduced from 48 to 32 students. Meanwhile, resources have been transferred to six regional centers throughout the state.

It's the beginning of what will be the most ambitious redesign of how Idaho teaches deaf and blind students. It will bring programs closer to those who need them, and it will reduce the state's dependency on the main campus in Gooding.

Changing the inevitable

Many people expected that changes would be made to the school after the Idaho Legislature and State Board of Education approved recommendations to expand services. But few people outside of the Gooding campus, which is isolated from most of Idaho by desert and farmland, knew that the changes were already under way.

Robert Kness, a senior at the ISDB, said most students feel like the school is declining.

"I actually noticed that things are getting worse," Kness said with the help of an interpreter. "We felt like they were slowly killing the place - I mean, not just letting it deteriorate, but actually killing it."

Kness had attended deaf schools in Montana and North Dakota before enrolling at the Gooding campus. Although his home is in Pocatello, he lives in a dormitory on campus during the school week. He returns home each weekend to be with his family, which does not use sign language.

"For most of us the school is our home away from home because a lot of students come from families that don't sign (language), so this is a place where we are like a family," he said. "I think that there needs to be a central place where students can all come together."

But officials have already decided to expand deaf and blind programs by spreading them throughout the state, and reducing the need for a central location.

"What we have done is looked at each position here as it opens up due to retirement or employees leaving the ISDB, and then we evaluate that position to see if it is absolutely necessary here," said Harvey Lyter, interim superintendent for the ISDB. "If it's something we can do without, then we close the position here and move it to one of our outreach programs."

Quality and quantity

Outreach programs are day classes for deaf and blind students that teach curriculums similar to those taught in public schools. The state hopes to expand outreach programs and reduce residential programs.

Currently, the Gooding campus is the only residential facility in the state.

For more than 30 years, the ISDB has operated outreach programs in Lewiston, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho Falls, Pocatello, Middleton and Boise.

But it wasn't until this year â€-quot; after the Legislature's Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee and the State Board of Education approved recommendations to expand those programs â€-quot; that the ISDB began augmenting those programs with more teachers and resources.

Lyter said the ISDB is being careful not to reduce the quality of service on the Gooding campus by retaining employees where they are needed.

"We actually have room to grow here because there has been a decline in students in the past," he said. "So, really, our teachers could have more kids in their classrooms."

But Kness said there might be fewer students in the classrooms, but there are also fewer teachers.

"It seems like they have lost some of the best teachers, and that's hard for the students," he said.

Donna Pence, D-Gooding, who sits on the House Education Committee, said she is aware of the expansion of the outreach programs, but she said they should not be expanded at the expense of the quality of the Gooding campus.

"If the students are suffering there because of the changes, then I think we would have to go back and look at what we're doing," she said.

Enrollment at Boise and Middleton outreach programs now surpasses the program in Gooding, according to an ISDB annual report released two weeks ago.

And that worries most residents in Gooding, where more than 15 percent of the 4,000 people who live there know some form of rudimentary sign language.

A community commitment

Lucy Chidante, the manager of Ridley's Food and Drug across the street from the Gooding campus, said the students are as much a part of the community as the school itself.

"They are a big part of the community," she said. "We actually have students who work in the store and they are also our customers, so they are also a big part of our business."

Last year, Ridley's was one of several businesses that set out petitions to keep the school in Gooding. So many residents signed the petitions that some people wrote their signatures on business receipts when there was no space left on the petition.

One of the community's biggest fears would be the economic impact to Gooding if the school moved away, but legislators already are exploring other uses of the campus. This year, the state surveyed the campus for use as a substance-abuse rehabilitation center.

But residents like Margaret Loyd say the state doesn't have the right to take away the school. And some see it as their civic duty to help the students.

"The locals here care about those kids because they've grown up around them," she said. "They (locals) know that the kids don't have some of the abilities we are blessed with, so they watch out for them and try to help them. How would anyone in Boise know how to do that?"

That is the same question lawmakers are asking the ISDB and the State Board of Education.

Besides expanding outreach programs in Idaho, the ISDB is exploring the idea of a residential campus in Treasure Valley.

Kness said more opportunities would be available to students if a residential campus was located in a larger city.

Pence said the proposal was unofficial, but something that is being seriously considered by lawmakers.

"We need to have residential campuses for students because it is too difficult for some to be mainstreamed," She said. "It's not just what the kids learn in the classroom but also what they learn afterward in the social setting. But most of the time in the public schools, that interpreter goes home at the end of the day and those students don't have that opportunity."

Location, location, location

Lyter said it's a difficult decision for parents to send their children away for weeks at a time, and he said in most cases it would be more effective to offer programs that are closer to students' homes.

"Usually, by the time a student is 13 or 14 years old, the realization sets in that the student's disability issue is holding them back in class and in their social lives," Lyter said. "Even when parents make the decision at that time to send them here (Gooding), those students are already about six years behind."

Under the plan to expand outreach programs, students would be able to commute daily to ISDB classes near their homes.

But the new plan is already facing serious challenges.

The Gooding campus already struggles to retain qualified teachers because local school districts frequently lure them away with the promise of higher salaries. ISDB salaries are more than 2.5 percent less than what local school districts pay.

The ISDB would need more than $100,000 to pay wages equal to the state's minimum for teachers.

"Just finding qualified staff is a big issue here, so building the outreach programs is like multiplying that supply-and-demand problem by six," Lyter said. "I'm not saying it's not a positive plan. I'm saying that we need to be aware of the problems we will have when we implement the plan."

Regardless of the challenges, the ISDB has already begun making steps toward expanding the regional centers and reducing its dependence on the Gooding campus. But even though the plan is under way, the students and the community remain opposed to it.

"I've noticed how we, as students, have kind of stood by while this has happened," Kness said. "But we feel like this school is our second family, and we're losing it. I don't think people understand that, so maybe this is something we need to stand up for."

Times-News writer Joshua Palmer covers education. He can be reached at or at (208) 420-0526.

© 2006, Lee Publications Inc.