IM this article to a friend!

May 13, 2007

Bethel to end classes for deaf

From: - Tacoma,WA,USA - May 13, 2007

With only 27 students, and down an interpreter, program will disband

DEBBY ABE; The News Tribune

The Bethel School District’s program for deaf and hard-of-hearing students will end after this school year, a casualty of dwindling enrollment and the low availability of sign language interpreters.

The program currently enrolls 27 students, including some from other school districts. But the number likely would fall to 20 or fewer next school year, Nancy Fitta, Bethel’s assistant director of special services, said Friday.

So Bethel is arranging for its deaf and hard-of-hearing students to attend the Tacoma School District’s program, which Bethel officials describe as a “strong program with a comparable philosophy, more students and more extensive program services.”

“It’s a real tough thing,” Fitta said. “We’ve been very proud of this program and enjoyed having the kids here.”

Bethel’s deaf and hard-of-hearing program, which started in 1994, operates at Spanaway Lake High, Spanaway Junior High and Thompson Elementary schools. Students attend the program part or all of the day, depending on their hearing loss and needs.

Some communicate mainly through sign language, while others read lips, use interpreters or enlist a combination of methods.

“It’s sad and unfortunate this is occurring, but there’s not enough deaf students in the program,” Chartrice Tillman, a deaf sophomore who attends Spanaway Lake High, said through an interpreter. “I’m really disappointed. We’re really sad about this being closed and stuff. It will be hard for us.”

But program instructors suggested Bethel disband the program out of concern for students.

Spanaway Lake High’s 11-student program would fall to five next year, and only one of those teens is profoundly deaf, teacher Debbie Tygart said.

“That’s far too isolating for a deaf student,” she said. “It’s better everyone go to a place with more deaf kids so you have a peer group.”

In addition, it’s been tough to find qualified sign language interpreters and instructors.

The school could use four interpreters, but has only been able to fill three positions, Tygart said. The district also has been unable to fill a teaching position, which lessens Tygart’s time with each student.

Tygart essentially teaches 27 classes to her 11 students. In one period, for instance, she might have a student who needs a 10th-grade math class, another student who needs 11th-grade English and three others who need different classes.

“We need help, and there’s just no help to be found,” she said, adding that many interpreters choose to go into the higher-paying private sector.

Fitta said the enrollment decline mirrors national trends.

She explained two theories behind the decline: Schools are seeing the last of a group of children born in the late 1980s and ’90s with a virus-related congenital hearing loss. And more children are receiving cochlear implants, which in some cases lessens the amount or types of services they need.

Spanaway Lake student Jessica Sorger acknowledges transferring to Mount Tahoma might be beneficial, but she would prefer to stay in the district she’s attended since preschool.

“It’s pretty much the only thing I know. I’ve really gotten used to the students who are there and the teachers and interpreters,” the 18-year-old said. “I might have to graduate from Mount Tahoma (High School), and I’ve been a Spanaway Lake Sentinel for three years.”

While Bethel has arranged for Tacoma to take the students, it’s up to families to decide which district they want their child to attend. North Thurston, Puyallup and Highline school districts and one Federal Way elementary school also offer deaf and hard-of-hearing programs, Fitta said.

Bethel will provide transportation to another district and pay that district to serve Bethel district students.

If they choose to go to Tacoma, students who live in Spanaway will face a 45- to 90-minute bus ride

Mount Tahoma, the site of Tacoma’s high school deaf and hard-of-hearing program, enrolled 16 students this year and will have room for the Bethel teens, said Mount Tahoma instructor Roberta Agar.

Anticipating the arrival of the Bethel students, Tacoma plans to add another program instructor, for a total of three classes at the school, Agar said. Tygart plans to apply for the position.

“Our program is growing quite a bit,” Agar said. “It’s really good for them (because) they have social interaction.”

To ease the transition, Bethel program students will visit the Tacoma sites, including Birney Elementary and Baker Middle schools, this month.

At least one student looks forward to the move. Ryan Wold, a Spanaway Lake junior, attended Tacoma schools for part of his elementary and middle school years.

“I’m excited about it ’cause all my friends are at Mount Tahoma,” said Wold, who is hard-of-hearing. “I had a good experience in Tacoma.”

Debby Abe: 253-597-8694

© Copyright 2007 Tacoma News, Inc.