While some people think the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind should shut down, that’s not likely to happen anytime soon, according to a newly released 130-page report analyzing the school’s operations and student outcomes.
“Some stakeholders said close the school right now, it’s not a good use of resources, it’s not meeting needs,” said Elliott Asp, the state’s former interim education commissioner.
However, “We did not believe that was a viable option at this point.”
An immediate backup plan would be necessary in that case, he said, to provide an alternative for the 210 deaf, hard-of-hearing, blind and visually impaired students at the Colorado Springs-based school that was founded in 1874.
Instead, the lengthy report issues recommendations and steps to help streamline administration, improve communication, boost student achievement, reduce the 40% turnover rate among staff in the deaf department, use teaching methods in addition to American Sign Language and build a united front in marching toward progression.
“Our greatest hope is we’ll see positive changes that will build on the strengths that are already here and really look to improve services for children and families across the state, and not have it (the report) be another layer on top of the pile,” Asp said.
Asp led an eight-member independent review team commissioned by the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind, at the request of the state Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee.
The JBC issued the call after complaints from parents and deaf-related nonprofit organizations that the school’s sole approach using American Sign Language was not the best methodology.
The team started work in January and concluded in July. The report is based on input from focus groups, interviews, surveys and discussions with hundreds of people, observations of classroom practices and reviews of organizational documents and student performance data.
“We didn’t go into this trying to find blame or any kind of agenda,” Asp said.
In doing research, the team stumbled on a similar report from 1990.
“I was shocked when I found it,” Asp said. “We’ve been at this for almost 30 years. A lot of the recommendations we’re making conceptually don’t look a whole lot different than some of the ones that were made before.”
Positive aspects of the school mentioned in the report include:
• Staff and parents praised the safe, caring and supportive environment and liked that students can interact with peers and adults in a way that isn’t available at local school districts.
• Directors of special education from across the state report that the school “plays a critical role” in Colorado by serving students whose needs can’t be met in their local districts, particularly in small rural districts.
• The school’s program — which has 700 students statewide in addition to the main day and boarding campus — is varied and supports students, families, practitioners, direct-service providers and online learning through methods that are interesting and innovative.
• Students gain life skills, helping them to get a job and become more independent.
On the need-for-improvement list:
• The school focuses more on deaf and hard-of-hearing than blind and visually impaired students, perhaps due to “politics within the deaf community,” Asp said, and the fact that there are more deaf and hearing-impaired students enrolled than blind and visually impaired.
• The school offers “limited support” for deaf and hard-of-hearing families who have chosen options other than American Sign Language to communicate with students.
• Student achievement growth is below state grade level, but “more troubling,” Asp said, is academic performance is “generally lower than average than other blind and deaf students in the state.”
• Schoolwide turnover is high and ongoing.
• Administration is top-heavy.
• The statewide services to families and school districts are compartmentalized and not coordinated. “From the town hall meetings, parents said they wanted a clear ‘Where do I call to inquire about this resource that’s available?’ That’s missing,” Asp said.
• Operation and oversight is muddled. The school board has taken a back seat to the superintendent, and there’s been little oversight from the Colorado Department of Education. The latter, Asp said, is due to the school’s categorization as an Alternative Education Campus under the state’s accountability system. “Because of that, their performance can be very low and not be subject to state intervention,” he said.
The Colorado Department of Education’s role in the review was limited to working with the school to ensure the independent review was completed, said spokeswoman Dana Smith. Thus, the department does not have a role in implementing the recommendations.
“We know that the superintendent is reviewing the recommendations and will work with her board on the follow-up,” Smith said.
The school board and new Superintendent Nancy Benham, who took over July 1, have started working on some of the objectives, Asp said. For example, board members last month began developing a formal process to evaluate the superintendent, based on goals and progress.
The school is using the information to “work with stakeholders across the state to develop the next three-year strategic plan,” Benham said in a statement.
The board also is looking at improvements that would help recruit and retain qualified staff, such as partnering with higher education programs to “enable district education staff to become licensed/certified in areas of critical shortage,” Benham said.
The school also will use performance data to drive instruction.
A long-term goal suggested in the report would be for the school to become accredited by national deaf and blind education accreditation bodies, the report states. The school currently is accredited under the state process.
Another vision is to build a collaborative partnership between the school, families, advocacy groups, school districts and related nonprofit organizations. Developing a plan for delivering outreach services and exploring different education models to serve kids statewide are other suggestions.
“It’s a real conundrum about what to do,” Asp said. “Grand Junction is struggling with having enough kids to develop a center on the Western Slope. They don’t want to send their kids to Colorado Springs because they don’t get to see them. Do we need regional models that might provide service there?”
Asp said after nearly 30 years of working on improving the state-funded specialty school, this year’s review team hopes that “this isn’t another report that goes on the top of a big pile of reports.”
Leaders from the school, the state education department, the JBC and interest groups may agree or disagree with the findings and recommendations, he said, but he hopes for results.
The team didn’t “find anybody that didn’t care about these kids or families or didn’t want the best — but they didn’t agree,” Asp said. “They need to come together; this is not about the adults, it’s about the children and their families.