Parents and community members attended the Beachwood City Schools meeting Monday to voice support of the deaf and hard of hearing program the district administers.
Last week it was put in writing that the district is considering pulling out as the program’s fiscal officer in 2014 when a union contract was approved for educational interpreters that lasted two years, instead of three like the district’s teachers' union* contract.
Currently the program serves 25 students from a consortium of 29 public school districts, including Beachwood, and
Enrollment is down and the program’s costs per student – which is paid by their home school districts – is getting harder and harder for those schools to afford, said Beachwood Superintendent Rich Markwardt.
One parent, Jennifer Thatcher of Beachwood, spoke of her three-year-old son, who is hard of hearing and has Down’s syndrome. This presents a challenging – “but not impossible” – educational future for him, she said.
“That is why I am here today, in support of maintaining the Beachwood deaf and hard of hearing program and urging Beachwood school board and administration to collaborate with obviously invested parents, educators, medical professionals and the community at large in finding a way to make the program viable.”
Markwardt said that the most obvious explanation for declining enrollment is that students are using cochlear implants, devices which amplify sound and may make it easier for them to stay in mainstream schools.
But one parent said that the implants alone are not enough. “[Cochlear implants] have changed the way deaf kids are being taught, but it is a super duper hearing aid. The language and the sounds that go in are not like what you hear, and the programs and support and the people that you have here is imperative, especially in early childhood.”
In addition, school districts may opt to offer their own deaf and hard of hearing programs to save money on the $50,000 per pupil tuition for the consortium’s program.
At any rate, enrollment has dropped 40 percent since the 2001-2002 school year, when 39 students were in the program and tuition was $37,000.
Tiffany Stehlik of Middlefield spoke of her son, who is enrolled in the program. “Beachwood has helped him become who he is as an individual. He has excelled because of Beachwood. This is his family. Without this school and without the staff and the people who helped him he wouldn’t be who he is today.”
“The easiest political response to the decline in enrollment in the deaf and hard of hearing program would be to do nothing at all,” said Markwardt. “As numbers of students declined we could have reduced staff accordingly through layoffs.
“Instead we are planning for orderly transition to ensure the continuation of high quality programming for deaf and hard of hearing students and fair treatment of deaf and hard of hearing program staff.”
Administrators said that they hope to have a proposed plan about the future of the program in late fall.
Parents and community members presented the board with a petition for a 60-minute public hearing on the program between Oct. 8 and 29.
*Editor's Note: The original version of this article reported that the district's support staff got a three-year contract; in fact, the teachers' union got a three-year contract.