Are State Schools for the Deaf at the “Tipping Point”?


OP-ED for The Communicator
By Bill Millios, Frederick, Maryland

I was recently reading a book titled “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell.

In this book, he explains what is necessary for an epidemic to occur--a spread of sickness, a social epidemic, a rumor, a fad, or any other rapid moving spread of information, feeling, or action.

One of the more interesting points in the book is the “Broken Windows Theory.” The theory is that when broken windows appear in a neighborhood, increased crime will follow, because broken windows are a sign of neglect, which in turn attracts undesirables, who say to themselves “People here are not watchful; this is a good place for me to do my illicit business.” Undesirables scare away the law-abiding folks, who in turn cause more undesirables breaking windows, which cause a sharp downward spiral of a neighborhood.

The good news is that tipping the situation the other way can be as simple as fixing the windows, and keeping them fixed. Examples were given such as the efforts of fighting crime on the New York City subways - starting with huge crackdowns on graffiti artists and fare jumpers. In a relatively short period of time, crime on the subways dropped dramatically, income from the subway was up, graffiti was down, etc.

The book encourages us to look for small but significant changes that can be made, in order to “tip” society. These are not always obvious. They may not even exist.

Personally, I think that the situation of the relationship between Gallaudet and the schools for the Deaf is one of symbiotic denial. Gallaudet feels it is the responsibility of the schools to provide a good education - yet without constantly lowering standards, there will be insufficient numbers of students to support the University. The schools for the deaf are largely under-funded and underappreciated - we have intense “school pride” - yet the comments of many people indicate that schools are largely run by folks that see it as a job, not as a calling. When you remove passion from a situation, you end up settling for “good enough”, which never is good enough.

So, which schools have “tipped” towards providing a quality education for deaf children?

As a parent of two deaf children, my options are limited if I am committed to a school for the Deaf. (Capital D)

(Let me preface my remarks by saying every school has warts. My goal here is to share a few insights, and open the field up for discussion.)

Maryland School for the Deaf is where my children are now. James Tucker came in, and the school “tipped” towards excellence.  The school was good before - but he’s successfully put together an institution that is committed to the student. Personally, I think MSD has the best all-around program in the country, with proven results in academics, sports, and graduates going on to higher institutions. (MSD grads have been accepted into Georgetown, American University, and other institutions known to have exceedingly high standards.) I know that MSD has a huge advantage, with so many Gallaudet staff, faculty, and alumni being close by.Indiana School for the Deaf has an excellent reputation. It is interesting that when people talk about Indiana, Brian Bippus’ name often comes up. As the Athletic Director, and an alumnus of ISD, he is a great ambassador of the school. Try as I might, I do not recall knowing who the superintendent is. (I have visited ISD, and I was impressed.  Several of my friends work there; several of my friends have children there.)

California School for the Deaf, Fremont - I have personally visited, and I know the caliber of the people that are there. I was impressed with the number of “specialists” in the school - there were full-time science teachers specifically for grades K through 3, and another one 4 through 6.

Florida School for the Deaf and Blind - I have to admit, I know less about FSDB than the other three - perhaps because less of my friends work there. They do have a large student body, and they have won the Academic Bowl, so the academic excellence is there. I’ve had more exposure to a few great students coming out of FSDB than I have with the school itself. I also cannot recall any high-level deaf administrators down there - I only know a few teachers.

After these four, however, my enthusiasm wanes. This should not be seen as a negative on any school not on the list - it’s more “my friends with deaf kids are going to these schools.” Cultural snobbiness? Perhaps. My criteria are, by design, mine. These are the schools that I have heard of people moving to, so that their children can attend.

For example, something like over sixty percent of parents at MSD are deaf. (I think the number is actually closer to 70%, but I’m being conservative.) We recently saw a posting online about the 1 in 10 myth (research has shown that the accepted “statistics” of 1 in 10 children are born to deaf parents is incorrect – the number is actually much less than that) - which means that having 60% clustered in one place is almost statistically impossible. The school has “tipped”, and parents of deaf children clamor enthusiastically to its halls. People move to the area from all over America so that their children can attend MSD.

If Gallaudet is to improve, we must also improve the schools. Which should come first? Both point fingers at the other. I believe it must be a bootstrapping process, whereby one helps the other up, then vice versa. Pulling each other down is a sure spiral into the dust.

I offer as an example of a school that has “tipped” towards the negative, my own alma mater - the Model Secondary School for the Deaf. When I was student there, the school was at capacity, with 425 students. It had honors programs. It had resources well beyond any other school for the deaf in America.

It is now a sad shadow of its former self, having been run into the ground.  I have friends that are/were teachers there in recent times - and they say it’s not what it used to be. In the past 15 years, it has “tipped” and fallen.

As another example of an interesting situation, I offer up Idaho School for the Deaf - where Angel Ramos came in as superintendent, attempted to “tip” the school towards becoming a stronger place for deaf people. He was ultimately unsuccessful - and left under huge pressure from the entrenched hearing administrators of the school to the school board. He had overwhelming support of the deaf community, both at the school, and throughout the state. It became a case of deaf vs. hearing. A nasty lawsuit ensued, which HE WON - but the school board refused to change. Angel left, and many deaf teachers have since moved to other states. So, my colleagues, I open the floor for debate.

1) What causes excellence at a school? I know for sure that the number of deaf parents has a huge impact. I also know that the number of culturally deaf teachers in the classrooms has a huge impact. (New Jersey’s state school, Marie Katzenbach School for the Deaf - the last I heard, there are ZERO culturally deaf teachers full-time in the classroom. There are several teacher’s aides, and some specialists, and some “hard of hearing” teachers, but no “culturally deaf.” Please don’t flame me on my definition of “culturally deaf,” which I am leaving vague on purpose - that’s not my point here.) I also know that having a bi-bi policy in effect has a huge impact. Ditto for mandatory signing at all times on campus. Strong sports and extracurricular programs are a plus.

2) What are the “broken windows” of deaf education in general, and at the schools specifically, and how can we fix them - quickly?

The bad news is that social engineering in an institution often takes time. People must leave, retire, or be fired. However, I do believe that change can occur relatively rapidly - within a five-year period. An environment of no tolerance towards “broken windows” can cause attitudes to shift quickly.

More bad news is that parents of deaf children take the (necessarily) short point of view - they are not willing to “fight it out” and improve a school so that others following behind can benefit. They are more concerned with the education available now - and they have repeatedly shown that they are willing to change jobs, and move to get the best education possible for their children.

It’s not an easy problem to fix.  If we are to provide quality education for our children, however, it’s a necessary problem to fix – and the solutions may vary from place to place.  More deaf teachers in the classroom?  Bi-bi policies set in place – and enforced?  Strict adherence to academic standards?  Strong sports and extracurricular programs?  These are all building blocks towards a well-rounded solution.

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Hands & Voices loves to generate a discussion. Occasionally, we will publish thought provoking pieces on issues affecting our children. The views expressed by authors do not necessarily represent views of the Hands & Voices national staff or state chapters.


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