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Deaf students staying put, for now

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The Medford School District temporarily has backed off a plan to relocate its students from the countywide Program for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing back to their home district.

“We, in collaboration with the (Southern Oregon Education Service District) and other area districts, determined we could use next year productively for some efforts that we believe will make for a smoother transition and set students up for success,” said Natalie Hurd, Medford schools spokeswoman.

In a letter to parents, Susan Peck, who heads special education services for the SOESD, said Medford will not recover its students until the 2020-21 school year at the earliest, and that all students already in the program will be allowed to stay in the Central Point School District, where it’s based, through graduation if they choose.

The letter was mailed to parents Friday and forwarded by email Thursday.

“SOESD values your input and feedback regarding proposed changes,” Peck’s letter said. “We ... understand that changes to locations of PDHH resource classrooms impact students and families.”

Aimee Holmes, a Central Point mother of a kindergarten-age daughter, said the decision “feels like a small victory.”

“I’m still just kind of processing, but I’m happy that nothing is changing now for us,” she said Thursday.

SOESD’s services for deaf and hard of hearing students have for decades been provided as a unified program in the Central Point School District, through both individual interpretive services and a common resource room. The 28 students in the program right now come from various school districts, including Medford.

Tania Tong, Medford’s director of special education, told parents in a letter sent out in February that the school district planned to bring its resident students — and any PDHH-qualifying students from elsewhere in the Rogue Valley who wanted — into Medford schools starting next year.

“It has to do with us (being) willing to serve the kids who live here, and the residents who pay ... hefty property taxes to live in Medford,” said Brian Shumate, outgoing superintendent of Medford schools. “And I want to be able to look those families in the eye and say we’ll serve all your kids, no matter what they bring to the table.”

Students and parents turned out in force at an April 22 Medford School Board meeting to protest the move and ask the school district to reconsider or delay its decision.

“Can we leave things as they are for the 2019-2020 school year?” asked Mike Neilitz, father of five children, including a deaf daughter. “Give us some time to figure this out and to communicate.”

Current and former students talked about the community they gained through being connected with a group of peers who can communicate in American Sign Language.

Austin Rowley, a graduate of the PDHH program and now a Southern Oregon University student, described how learning sign language and about deaf culture with his peers gave him self-confidence.

“Now that I’ve graduated and I go to SOU, I feel like I’m the only deaf student there,” he said. “But that’s OK. I learned through the PDHH program to be a self-advocate for myself.”

Other community members, including Steve Wasserman, a deaf ASL professor at SOU, said that separating children between two programs would harm their mental and social-emotional well-being.

“The move from Central Point to Medford is actually going to harm all the kids, not just the Medford kids,” he said. “To isolate a deaf student — one, two or three — in a program in Medford under the guise of least restrictive environment is so wrong. It’s devastating.”

Hurd said the district planned to update families in a letter on any changes to the plan, which had to be worked out among all the regional special education directors.

Families said they waited nearly a month while wondering where their children would go to school next year before hearing back about their concerns.

“(Communication has) been the biggest problem all along, and that doesn’t look like it’s going to change,” Neilitz said.

Hurd apologized on behalf of the district Friday morning.

“We do care about the families involved, and we regret how long it took and there wasn’t enough engagement in the process,” she said.

The letter that Peck sent parents said students would have the option to stay in the Central Point School District until they graduate as seniors; in Medford’s first plan, its students would have been able to stay only until they finished the highest grade at their current school level.

Central Point officials have indicated they are advocating for the program to remain in their district.

“I believe that those services are best provided within our current program at the Central Point School District, where PDHH is a dynamic part of our district and school culture and has been for decades,” said Samantha Steele, superintendent of District 6, in an April email.

Holmes noted that because the program will split up the students in future years, some parents are not satisfied yet.

“I think we’d all prefer the program to stay where it is,” she said. “We could hopefully be more involved in the process; parents can be included ... without them making this change and decision without any of our input.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Hear PDHH students' thoughts on the program and what they think might happen if it is split into different campuses. Video by Kaylee Tornay.Thumbnail
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune{ } Joseph Mella, a student at Crater High School, describes the impact that the program for deaf and hard of hearing students has had on his life.