- Residential Schools for the Deaf and Academic Placement Past, Present, and Future
It is possible that several residential schools for the deaf will be closed in the near future. At the time of this writing a decision has been made in one state to close the state school effective this summer. Efforts are underway to reverse this decision and perhaps the issue will be resolved by the time of this publication. Regardless of the outcome in this specific case, however, the national, and international, trend is clear. In several other states school closings are being contemplated, sometimes with committees assigned to study the situation and make recommendations in one or two years. The impact has reached both private and state-supported schools and schools that emphasize oral-only, Total Communication, and bi-bi instruction.
This is not a new trend, of course. In the past decade or so several residential schools have been closed, others transformed into day programs, and others now serve a relatively small number of residential students on-site while providing statewide support services. Many day school programs in large cities also have been closed and students served in areas closer to home to meet least restrictive environment (LRE) and inclusion mandates.
It may be beneficial to look at the situation from a long term perspective in order to understand where we are now. Many educators attribute the decline of residential and day school programs for deaf students to the impact of the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, passed 35 years ago, and its current reenactment as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Undeniably, the LRE provision has had a significant influence, but the process actually started well before the federal legislation.
Prior to World War II, most deaf children were educated in residential schools. Since then, for more than 60 years there has been an almost complete absence of construction of new residential schools although the American population has increased considerably. To the best of my knowledge during the baby boom from 1946 to 1960 only one residential school for the deaf was established, the California School for the Deaf, Riverside. The increased population of deaf children was either accommodated in existing residential schools or, more commonly, in local school programs. The shift in placement was already apparent.
The rubella epidemic of the mid-1960s, essentially doubling the number of deaf children born during that period, occurred after the baby boom had peaked and births were starting to decline, raining the possibility of empty classrooms in public schools. There was no push for state legislators to invest in residential schools for what was seen as a one time only phenomenon, especially after a rubella vaccine was developed. By 1971, before the Education of all Handicapped Children Act, the pendulum had swung and fewer than half of all deaf children were attending residential schools. From 1970 on, again to the best of my knowledge, only one new residential school for deaf children has been constructed, the Maryland School for the Deaf, Columbia, a school in which most of the children are day students. This is not uncommon; in many present residential schools day students constitute the majority.
I am aware that there has been new construction in some states. For example, the California School for the Deaf, Fremont was built to replace the California School for the Deaf, Berkeley and a new campus was established for the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin to consolidate its program, but these represent replacements of existing facilities.
There are several residential schools with enrollments of more than 300 deaf students. These tend to be in our more populous states such as California, Texas, and Florida or in states with special characteristics, such as Maryland with its concentration of highly educated deaf professionals. These states also tend to have well-developed public school programs and can offer students and families a range of options. For example, New York has its Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) programs in which multi-district programs share resources and operate programs for special education students and Florida organizes public school programs for deaf children at the county level. Several...