The R.I. School for the Deaf will move into a new $32-million building this fall as it struggles to improve its services. Can it once more be a voice for deaf culture?

High school graduation was at least five months away, but in his mind’s eye, that was already history. Standing in his literacy classroom, senior Jake Douglas was poised on the precipice of adult possibilities. He was headed for college in Rochester to study photography or would maybe go to CCRI or become an automotive technician.

A gangly eighteen-year-old with a fringe of chin hair framing his pale face, Douglas, of Blackstone, Massachusetts, was clad this frigid winter morning in teal shirt and striped tie, as though he was ready to dash off to his professional life. He sketched the future with waving fingers. Then he walked his confidence back half a step. Maybe he would stay an extra year at the Rhode Island School for the Deaf, he signed.

His enthusiasm was, nonetheless, a fresh breeze through the pre-Christmas doldrums that grip classrooms everywhere. The 134-year-old school is riding out the year in temporary quarters at the old Rhodes Elementary School in Warwick. And like Jake, the school is striving for a better future self.

The Rhode Island School for the Deaf once enjoyed a reputation for excellence. But in 2001, director Peter Blackwell retired after thirty-three years, and re-shaping his considerable imprint on the school proved to be more difficult than anyone anticipated. Over the last eight years, the school has had three directors and a complete turnover of its trustees. On separate occasions, the staff took votes of no-confidence against the board and the current director, Lori Dunsmore, the school’s first female deaf administrator, who was hired in 2007. Enrollment dropped from 105 students to eighty-six. Standardized test scores scraped the bottom in core subjects and the building at Corliss Park was crumbling. In October, the state department of education temporarily took control of the school and all but three trustees resigned.

Board Chairman Travis Zellner says the state’s newfound interest in the school is necessary, after years of neglect.

“We need the support. It’s actually a good thing,” he says, “but change is a process. I’m optimistic that over time it will go back to being a national and internationally recognized school.”

More than 90,000 Rhode Islanders are deaf or hard of hearing. While the two are often lumped together, those affected by hearing loss are distinct groups, with needs that differ according to the degree of deafness, when it occurred in their lives and how they choose to communicate. Despite the complexities, Rhode Island has been a national leader in delivering services to these communities. In 1990, the state helped pioneer a newborn hearing screening program that demonstrated the feasibility of discovering hearing loss at ages as young as six months. It became a model and the standard of care.
Three years ago, Rhode Island became the first state to mandate private insurance coverage for hearing aids for children and adults. Only twelve states require such coverage for children and even fewer require coverage for adults.

A special committee convened by the state Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is now working on legislation to require insurers to more substantially cover the cost of implant technology (electronic devices that aid hearing by routing sounds around the damaged portions of the ear and directly stimulate the auditory nerve) for adults and expand coverage to children.

“All hearing devices are now becoming advanced technology — even though it is not curable, as a lot of people thought,” says the commission’s executive director Steve Florio. “It has increased the compatibility with various types of hearing loss depending on their hearing health conditions. All people who are deaf or hard of hearing deserve to restore their hearing in the same way as anyone deserves to restore their sight by obtaining glasses.” 

Technology is just one evolutionary force in deaf culture. The deaf pride movement that took hold in the 1960s empowered the community to find its political voice. New federal laws required public schools to offer appropriate public education to and established civil rights for citizens with disabilities. Medical advances, such as the vaccination for rubella (German measles) eliminated one of the major causes of congenital deafness. All of these factors have reduced and changed the population of deaf children and challenged the routines of many long-established special schools.
“A lot of deaf schools are going through academic and cultural changes,” signs Dunsmore. “People are still trying to figure out the best way to teach a deaf child and also give the deaf child a sense of identity.”

Schools for the deaf are still relevant, says Mary Jane Johnson, a thirty-one-year veteran of the Rhode Island School for the Deaf who now teaches at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Massachusetts. “There is no single right or wrong answer when it comes to the decisions families make when determining what is best for their child,” she says. “Not all families will choose technology that supports mainstreaming. These decisions are very personal.”

At the state level, however, the decisions have been entirely financial. Dwindling class sizes combined with ballooning deficits have led many states to re-think their support of schools for the deaf. In the last few years, funding cuts threatened to close schools in Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Virginia and North Carolina. Although the Rhode Island School for the Deaf was forced to absorb a $900,000 reduction, the state is investing $32 million in a new school building, scheduled to open next September. 
“It’s a great thing to work toward,” says state education Commissioner Deborah Gist, who initiated the state intervention. “It will be the start of a new era. It’s a great incentive to get solid plans in place as we roll into that new building.”

Those plans include returning school governance to the board by June. In January, the board of regents filled several open trustee positions and offered training for all members. Dunsmore and her staff were working on a school improvement plan, professional development, and setting targets for raising the percentages of students proficient in English and math. The school is also beefing up its outreach to other public schools with deaf and hard of hearing students. The ultimate goal is to make the new Rhode Island School for the Deaf a central resource for all children with hearing loss and their teachers.

The last piece of accountability will be tracking graduates, to see how many complete college or find work. Right now, the state has no data on how well it has prepared its deaf students. The school and the Corliss Institute, a nonprofit in Warren offering training and employment to deaf adults with other disabilities, are the state’s two largest employers of the deaf. Outside of those, the employment climate can be hostile to deaf workers, says Mary E. Wambach, the institute’s executive director and a school trustee.

“Those who do not go on to college will have varying opportunities and success in work. Many students receive Social Security benefits as minors, and it can be tricky and difficult to stop depending on them when few employers offer health insurance coverage. In the past few years, it has become harder to restore Social Security if a working person is downsized or fired, or if a company closes. Add this to the reality that many employers do not desire to recruit or hire deaf people and it is harder for deaf people to find and keep jobs — as well as to receive promotions — than it is for the ‘average person,’ ” she said in an e-mail. “I think the school’s presence and identity are critical not only to the deaf 
community but to the community at large.”

Dunsmore is acutely aware of the stakes. She has her own tale of thwarted ambition. Dunsmore’s first-chosen career was in public health. But after a few years, she realized that it would be difficult for her, as 
a deaf woman, to advance and eventually switched to deaf education.

Everybody deserves the opportunity to reach their highest potential, she signs. And that will require a Rhode Island School for the Deaf that sends Jake Douglas not just out in the world, but up.