Iowa School for the Deaf graduates and students said closing that residential school in Council Bluffs would mean a loss of community, culture and educational access for deaf and hard-of-hearing Iowans.
They made their pleas to keep the deaf school open during a public hearing Monday evening, held on the campus of the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton, which no longer houses a residential school for Iowa's blind and vision impaired students. Deaf school graduates said they do not want their residential school to meet the same fate, though closing the deaf school or moving its campus are options under consideration by a study committee looking at the future of the school.
"It was life changing," Bill Adams, of New Sharon, said of his time at the Iowa School for the Deaf, where he graduated in 1984. "I was finally with peers who had the same issues as I did. I learned so much. In the mainstream setting, I always felt bullied and picked on. I wasn't allowed to participate in sports, and I was always behind in academics."
About 50 people attended the two-hour public hearing Monday, held after the second meeting of the study committee that is looking at the future of the Iowa School for the Deaf and at the statewide system of services for Iowa's blind and visually impaired students. Of those who attended the hearing, about half made comments, all in favor of keeping the School for the Deaf as a residential option.
"It seems that the focus is on the budget rather than on the culture and the language that deaf students need," said Sandra Anderson Buchholz, a 1981 Iowa School for the Deaf graduate who now teaches American Sign Language at the University of Minnesota. "I understand the financial concerns, but we can't forget about the children."
In mainstream school settings, children who are deaf and hard of hearing often rely solely on an adult interpreter, having no direct communication with the classroom teacher, several of the speakers said. That can be isolating for deaf students, who often have a hard time forming social bonds with their hearing classmates. That communication barrier can affect a deaf child's self esteem and grades, they said.
At the School for the Deaf, they find teachers, students and staff who they can communicate and interact with, speakers said. Role models are plentiful and access to sports, academic clubs and teachers who sign is abundant.
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Vince Fox, 17, said he was falling behind in his mainstream school in Webster City before he started attending the School for the Deaf three years ago. In his old school, he often had to have his interpreter repeat things, leading to frustration for both of them.
"I'd try so hard to keep up," said Fox, who will be a senior at the deaf school this fall. "I had to watch the interpreter nonstop, all the time."
His grades went from a 2.7 average to nearly 3.5 now at the deaf school, where he plays football and hangs out with friends on campus.
"I was finally on the same playing field as everybody else for once," he said.
The study committee is looking at eight "guiding questions" that include options of closing the deaf school, merging it with programs for blind and visually impaired students, or having four or five regional facilities throughout the state. The group will continue its work over the next several months and eventually make recommendations to the state Board of Regents.The committee next meets Aug. 27 at the School for the Deaf, followed by another public hearing. Budget constraints and facility requirements are driving the study, along with a desire to look at the kinds of services and programs the students need, said Patrick Clancy, superintendent of both special schools that are overseen by the regents.