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Hearing impaired students face new obstacles

Peoria Journal Star, IL
September 5, 2003
Phil Luciano

Nearly deaf since birth, little Kerstyn Smith faces enough challenges without scholastic red tape further mucking up her life.

She's not quite 4 years old, so she doesn't know the inanities of bureaucracy. All she does know is that she was supposed to go to specialized District 150 school outfitted to address her hearing problem, but she (along with other children with similar difficulties) suddenly got dumped into another school that's far less helpful.

Even more maddening, District 150 won't explain the maneuver - not to the girl's mother, not to other parents, not to the teachers of hearing-impaired students.

"It's not right what they're doing to our kids,'' says the lass' mother, Malynda Smith. "… She has a long life ahead of her, and it's going to be a hard life if she can't get the education she needs.''

Kerstyn and her family live in Washington, where she attended early-education classes last year. But her learning was limited because the youth has congenital hearing loss: She can only hear loud noises such as a

lawn mower or police siren.

With hearing aids, she can hear a bit better, if she faces no distractions and can remain focused. But regular classrooms brim with distractions, from low-level machine noise to chatty, active students. So, the Washington school district, which offers no hearing-impaired classes, advised Kerstyn's family to send her to District 150, which at Sterling School hosts a hearing-impaired division - perhaps the best in central Illinois.

In May, District 150 staff met with Kerstyn’s parents and specified the girl’s specialized learning plan for this fall, when Kerstyn would attend a pre-kindergarten class for hearing-impaired students.

The plan would include, among other things, "reduced distractions’’ and an "acoustically appropriate classroom.’’

Though the Washington district would pick up the tab, Kerstyn’s parents were hesitant to transplant her daughter to a school so far from home. But after touring Sterling School, they and Kerstyn got excited about her new opportunities.

Sterling School’s classrooms were designed to maximize the learning environment for hearing-impaired students.

To muffle outside noise and amplified classroom speech, walls were built with sand-filled block and covered with cork and carpeting.

To reduce auditory and visual distractions, windows were excluded from the classroom.

To keep students from sweating, which can clog hearing aids, the classrooms were outfitted with air conditioning.

To reduce ambient noise, blowers for heating and air-conditioning were located away from the classroom.

The classrooms included other, more technical amenities; but you get the idea. For hearing-impaired students, Sterling was the place to go.

Until a few weeks ago.

In mid-August, Kerstyn’s parents, along with the parents of her 20-some hearing-impaired schoolmates, were told that hearing-impaired students would be sent to Woodrow Wilson School. No reason was given for the change.

So, Kerstyn and other hearing-impaired students have been sitting in a standard classroom outfitted with no hearing-impaired amenities, except for cork on the walls – which by itself does little to decrease outside noise, says Kerstyn’s mom. Worse, during the first week, the weather was hot, and Woodrow Wilson has no air conditioning; so the windows were kept open, letting in all outside noise.

Plus, fans were turned on, the noise adding to the distractions.

"It’s ridiculous,’’ says Malynda Smith.

Even more ridiculous, she can’t get any answers. No one at the school will explain to her the wherefores behind the move.

The teachers are perplexed, too — and frustrated. Sally Monroe, a teacher in the hearing-impaired division, wrote a letter to the School Board explaining that Sterling’s environment "cannot be duplicated in any building in the district or within a multiple-county region.’’

Teachers and parents attended a meeting of the School Board’s building committee in mid-August.

The board could offer no answers about the move, because the administration hasn’t explained anything to the board.

Board President Vince Wieland says District 150 administrators are in charge of making decisions such as which students are taught in which classrooms.

However, Wieland admits that he’s mystified by the switch from Sterling.

"If something’s not broken, why fix it?’’ he says. "…It seems like the program has been doing a lot of good. The parents have been supportive of it.

"I really feel for these people.’’

Wieland wonders if perhaps federal law came into play. Federal guidelines state that special-needs students shall be removed from regular classrooms only if their handicaps mandate special consideration.

You’d guess that classification would include hearing-impaired students, who need special classrooms to thrive.

But all we can do is guess, because I couldn’t get any answers from District 150 .

That’s not unusual of late. Even long-time district spokesman John Day rarely returns reporters’ calls anymore.

Anyway, another federal regulation holds that special-needs students should be in the same school as age-appropriate peers who have no disabilities. That way, so the theory goes, students of all types can associate with each other.

Sterling was divided into two halves: grade-school special-ed classes and middle-school standard classes.

In other words, there were no pre-K or kindergarten pupils in the school who did not have special needs. So, to comply with federal law, perhaps District 150 moved Kerstyn and her schoolmates to Woodrow Wilson, which does include non-special-needs students of Kerstyn’s age.

Again, we don’t know that’s the case. If so, her mom thinks that’s a shortsighted law, because pre-K kids like Kerstyn (special needs or otherwise) don’t socialize much outside their classroom. At Woodrow Wilson, Kerstyn only hangs out with the hearing-impaired kids in her class; she has no need to be anywhere else in the school.

Meanwhile, there’s another theory making the rounds: The move was prompted not by federal law, but because the administrators needed more space. And the air-conditioned atmosphere of Sterling School provided so an inviting option, they booted out the hearing-impaired kids.

Does that sound terrible? Sure does. I wish someone at District 150 would return a phone call and tell me what’s going on. Then I wouldn’t have to print conjecture.

Again, maybe District 150’s hands are tied here by federal regulations. But if so, the district should explain its motives — especially to Kerstyn Smith and her parents.




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