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April 1, 2010

Officials consider changes to schools for deaf, blind

From: Fulton Sun - Mar 30, 2010

By Bob Watson
For the Fulton Sun

Missouri's schools for the deaf and blind will continue operating in the future, but perhaps with a different role to play.

John Heskett, former assistant commissioner for Special Education in the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, told the state Board of Education Friday that current Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro challenged him to lead a task force that would recommend "significant budget reductions" while still operating the state schools for "children who are sensory impaired -- blind and deaf -- at a very high level of quality."

The task force this month proposed about $400,000 in budget cuts, and another $300,000 in savings by transferring some students to the state's Schools for the Severely Disabled, which are closer to their homes.

Heidi Atkins Lieberman, current assistant commissioner for Special Education, said the proposed transfers only involve "about 14 kids" who were allowed to stay at MSD and MSB several years ago, when the state changed its criteria to exclude "any children that would also qualify for Missouri's Schools for the Severely Disabled."

In 1851 Missouri lawmakers created the state schools for the deaf, in Fulton, and blind, in St. Louis. Both offer primarily residential programs to help educate those with severe sensory impairments.

"We convened a task force that involved representatives from the blind and deaf communities," Heskett reported, including school leadership, their advisory boards and alumni associations.

"We also had individuals representing advocacy groups within the state, that provide encouragement for the development of quality services for children who are blind and deaf."

Some of the savings would come from "additional personnel reductions that can be taken as a function of lower student enrollments at both of these schools," Heskett said.

MSD currently has about 110 students, while the MSB population is around 70.

"Those are down significantly, even over the last couple of years," Heskett said, noting the reductions have occurred even as the number of deaf children in Missouri has risen by 2 percent, and the number of blind students is up 14 percent.

That reduction at the two residential schools is possible, Heskett said, because local school districts can "better-serve the children at home" than in the past.

Among deaf students, he said, family decisions have led to "75 percent of children born deaf" getting cochlear implants "before age 2," letting most of those students stay in their local, home districts.

However, Lieberman said, those children still need extra help in their classrooms.

"Some people think that, because you've had a cochlear implant, you hear like everybody else," she noted, "and that couldn't be further from the truth. ... Part of this is resulting in a change in the role of the Missouri School for the Deaf.

"In the last couple of years, we have done a lot of work to increase our visibility in terms of outreach, and to provide assistance to schools ... so that we can keep those kids in their home districts."

But other children -- especially those for whom cochlear implants don't work -- go to school after having lost 2-3 years of learning because they haven't been able to develop any kind of communication or linguistic skills.

Often, they still need the concentrated help the residential schools provide.

Also, Nicastro said, DESE officials already have started working with the governor's office and others to change the state's Medicaid plan, so more federal money could go to the two schools' budgets. The process likely will take more than a year.

© 2010 The Fulton Sun.