Home > Article from newspaper > Deaf school criticized as numbers slide

Deaf school criticized as numbers slide

July 29, 2007

Challenges are same confronted by any small district, administrators say 


Tim Nold with sons Isaac, who turns 10 on Monday, and Caleb, who is 6. They attend Hayward Elementary. Isaac, who is profoundly deaf, repeatedly has been denied admission to attend South Dakota School for the Deaf.

(Photo by Jon Walker / Argus Leader)

 By Jon Walker

Published: July 29, 2007

Two candidates for superintendent visiting the School for the Deaf last week found a campus with shrinking enrollment and tales of both happiness and frustration from families whose children don’t hear well.

A Sioux Falls institution dating to 1880, the school had more than 130 students in the 1970s, along with an energetic dormitory life and the promise of a cultural haven for children to succeed in their deafness.

The school will have only 38 children in grades K-12 this fall – with eight in high school and a curriculum forcing students to take courses elsewhere in order to graduate. Most receiving help today are not enrolled at the school, but are off-campus as specialists provide outreach services to 221 children around the state.

“The school started out as an orphanage. Over time, things change,” said Judy Bakkene, a program specialist on the staff since 1986.

But alongside changes in education and medical gains that let children hear for the first time are accounts of families feeling helpless about what they see as the school failing its mission.

Jorden Curran, who’s been taught at the school since age 2, is 14 today and about to enter ninth grade. He is deaf, autistic and losing his eyesight. He is also about to learn that he must divide his high school days between Sioux Falls and Flandreau because the deaf school does not offer algebra.

“He loves the School for the Deaf,” his mother, Deanne Curran, said from the family’s home in Flandreau. “But if he stayed there, there’s no way he’d be able to graduate to be prepared to go to college, because they won’t provide entry-level math.”

This confounds Rick Weber, the Flandreau superintendent, who now is making arrangements to teach Jorden a half-day and give him a 45-mile noon-hour ride to Sioux Falls.

“I have trouble understanding how an accredited school does not offer math to their high school students,” Weber said. “My understanding is they won’t have high school English next year,” Weber added, voicing a concern that several parents also mentioned in recent interviews.

Algebra, physics, chemistry among subjects not offered

Joel Grim, principal at the School for the Deaf since 2004, said the concerns are only partly true. English class will continue. But the algebra teacher resigned, so that offering has been dropped. The school does offer consumer math, although that class doesn’t satisfy any of the three curriculum pathways the state requires for a high school diploma.

“We are just unable to offer the algebra class at this time,” Grim said. “We don’t have an individual to teach that class. We’re such a small school, we can’t offer everything.”

Maureen Schloss, departing this summer after three years as the deaf school’s superintendent, said most high school students there are dual-enrolled, and all would need courses elsewhere to graduate.

This will be the first year without algebra, she said. The school hasn’t offered physics or chemistry in at least three years, though it does offer biology and physical science. Schloss said the deaf school, with a budget less than $4 million, is facing issues many towns face across the state.

“We’re just like Lemmon and Eagle Butte, which don’t have enough people to warrant keeping teachers in all areas,” she said. “We can’t have one teacher for one class for two students when the population is dwindling. We’re very similar to other districts in South Dakota.”

Jorden Curran’s sister, Abigail, 6, also is deaf, autistic and losing her vision. She attended kindergarten last year in Flandreau. Her parents applied in June for her to be accepted at the School for the Deaf this fall and await an answer. For now, she’s due to repeat kindergarten in Flandreau.

Weber hired a deaf educator, a $29,500 position, to assist Abigail and expects a similar cost to help Jorden in the coming year. The Flandreau district also will pick up the expense to shuttle Jorden to Sioux Falls during lunch, about $20 a day or $3,500 a year.

Tad Perry, executive director of the South Dakota Board of Regents, said the School for the Deaf provides a service, but local districts remain responsible for a child’s education.

“Realistically, we cannot offer every class desired by every child in a high school for eight students,” Perry said. “The demographics suggest the high school will not get any larger.”

Asked whether the school would close, Perry said: “I’m not going there. We still have a service to provide. In the foreseeable future, I don’t see any change.”

Isaac Nold, who turns 10 on Monday, attended the School for the Deaf during a 45-day evaluation in 2003, then was turned away. He has a brother, Caleb, 6, who hears perfectly and wrestles with him in the living room of the family’s west Sioux Falls home. But Isaac is profoundly deaf, has cerebral palsy and a nerve disorder that keeps him from feeling pain in his face. He can swallow yogurt but otherwise is fed through a tube.

Rejected for admission because of other disability

Teresa Nold, Isaac’s mother, said the school rejected Isaac because deafness is not his primary disability.

“I thought he did great,” she said. “Other students enjoyed having him. Teachers enjoyed having him. We went in there thinking that he would actually be welcomed. We were told he wouldn’t be able to learn or would not fit in. At the evaluation, they started off with, ‘You can’t come back. This isn’t working out.’ ”

Isaac was dual-enrolled at the time, also attending Hayward Elementary. He’s back now at Hayward full time.

“Hayward is great. We’re getting the things that for the most part he needs,” his mother said. “But the major thing he needs is a signing environment. I know he sees himself as different. I know he’s frustrated. He has to rely on an adult to communicate for him, while peers around him are communicating with others, joking, laughing. I know he sees that.”

She also applied for Isaac in 2000 and 2005 and was turned down. She has a file of correspondence pertaining to civil rights and fair education but doesn’t know yet whether she’ll pursue another application.

Nold said she finds it odd that a school for the deaf, a presumed advocate for deaf children, keeps her deaf child away. Her husband, Tim Nold, who is deaf, said that when he graduated from the school in 1984, many in his class of 18 had multiple disabilities. Teresa Nold, herself partly deaf, attended the school for a semester in high school before returning to Lincoln High. She said her son has a greater need for the school than she did.

Bakkene, the school’s program specialist, said she couldn’t discuss Isaac’s situation or other individual cases. But one rule guiding admission is that “the primary handicap has to be hearing loss,” she said. Success of children in their neighborhood schools such as Hayward is a sign that the system works, she said.

“If a school district is offering a good program for a youngster, that is essentially the least restrictive environment,” Bakkene said. “That’s the way it goes. The fact they’re happy with the program there is key.”

The school serves students whose personalized education plans require what the Sioux Falls campus offers.

“Most school districts don’t have a bilingual education program … and don’t have the auditory-oral program for kids with a cochlear implant,” said Schloss, who is returning to teach at Northern State University.

Some parents say school has not been responsive

Enrollment at the deaf school soared in the 1930s, ’60s and ’70s on the wing of rubella, meningitis and other diseases. Medicine improved, deafness became moderate more often, and science helped more children hear. Federal laws ushered in mandates for local schools helping children with disabilities.

“With special education, improvements in teaching and hearing aids … the least restrictive environment keeping kids in their home school has been the way things have moved,” Bakkene said.

The deaf school’s dormitory, down to six students, closed in 2005. That space now is for after-school activities, outreach offices and parent-child education. The school offers free audiolingual testing in a diagnostic clinic for South Dakotans from birth to age 21.

Michelle Foy said her daughter, Catherine, 9, has been well-served at the school. Catherine attends St. Michael Elementary in the morning and goes to the School for the Deaf in the afternoon.

Catherine has a cochlear implant and is in the deaf school’s auditory-oral curriculum, where the emphasis is on hearing and speaking, not sign language. She now talks on the phone, sings and plays a guitar.

Catherine might switch someday to the deaf school’s bilingual curriculum, where the emphasis is on American Sign Language for conversation and English for reading and writing. “Signing will always be her first language,” her mother said.

Catherine Foy has multiple health issues, including pulmonary and cardiovascular problems. She had 19 surgeries by age 2 and needs occupational and physical therapy. But hearing is her leading disability, which is her ticket to the school.

“I am pleased,” Michelle Foy said of the school’s performance, though she questioned why another mother, Teresa Nold, cannot enroll her child. “As a parent and taxpayer, I don’t think I would disagree with her. That’s too bad.”

Other parents have questioned the school’s direction, saying administrative decisions, not societal trends and medical gains, have caused enrollment to fall. School officials said layoffs at Communication Services for the Deaf, an agency on the same campus, have forced some families with deaf children to leave the state.

Julie Doucette, mother of a high school student, suspects a shift to eliminate ASL and offer only auditory-oral instruction. She suggests the school unfairly excludes some children and has an inadequate forum for parents to raise objections.

“To me, they’re oppressing the already-oppressed,” she said. “We need somebody who understands deaf culture,” another parent, Jodie Engstler, said of the administration.

Perry said he is familiar with parents who have complained.

“I’ve talked to them. They just don’t like the answers,” he said.

The school now has 22 students in the bilingual program, including all eight in high school, and 16 in auditory-oral. Demand for auditory-oral is growing, as is demand for outreach that lets children stay in home districts, Perry said. Success of cochlear implants helps drive that, and that fact hits a nerve in deaf culture.

“This is a major shift in what the deaf community has experienced,” Perry said. “The history is, if deaf, the only way to communicate has been sign language. But as technology takes over, you just shift that culture. That’s a concern to people. I understand that and am sympathetic to that.”

Reach Jon Walker at 331-2206


  1. MBB
    July 29, 2007 at 10:05 pm

    Thanks for sharing this article. Let’s hope it will not happen at other schools across the nation, especially with deaf/hh children.

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