As officials from South Dakota School for the Deaf prepare to make one major transition this fall, they’re also on the verge of having to find balance with another: hosting the highest number of enrolled students who are deaf and hard of hearing expected to receive outreach services since the school opened decades ago.
This fall, school outreach service consultants are expected to serve nearly 600 students statewide, demographic data shows. And that’s only expected to increase, with nearly 650 students by 2021.
But as officials prepare to move from its current campus on 8th Street to a smaller facility in the former TCF Bank on 38th Street near a strip club, administrators say they’re looking at potentially hiring more help and planning for future growth, as well as trying to smooth over any potential bumps in the road during the transition.
The move is one that’s been criticized by the deaf community and lawmakers alike.
“We’re going to be challenged in terms of space,” Superintendent Marje Kaiser said. “You saw the two or three classrooms that are down there right now. We won’t have that comparable space in the new facility.”
Handling the growing caseload
The real challenge comes in giving students who are used to residential deaf schools — like the South Dakota School for the Deaf once was years ago — access to regular interaction and easy communication with their peers
“Where are we going? How do we build to meet the need that we hear from parents from the deaf community?” Kaiser said. “The challenge is people who have gone to residential schools cherish that experience as part of their education. But it’s almost impossible to replicate that in today’s world.”
Administrators can’t warrant having as many classrooms as they do today on their current campus, for things like the school’s annual month-long summer program called Hands in Motion for deaf and hard of hearing children ages 2 through 5.
The program offers field trips, learning units, social opportunities and more. It wrapped up its last days at the current facility on July 26. Fewer than 50 students attended the program, some traveling from miles away to participate, Director of Outreach Kim Wadsworth said.
“We’re going to have to find some new partners so we can have a location that works for that program,” Kaiser said. “And that may be true for some of our sign language classes or some of the other things we do, but I’m not giving up any programs even if we can’t say they’re not going to be on our site.”
Campus officials already work with a variety of different partners, including the South Dakota Department of Health and Augustana University, Kaiser said. And the school is continuously trying to improve on offering more events across the state to the deaf community, she said.
“We’ve really worked … to look at ways we can collaborate with other people to get a job done that we know needs to get done,” Kaiser said. “If we can’t do it all, then maybe we can collaborate.”
Officials may look at partnering with the University of South Dakota’s audiology program by using their students to work with the School for the Deaf’s audiology program as an example, Kaiser said.
School officials are also weighing whether to hire at least one other outreach consultant. Right now, the school has 11, each of whom handles about 50 to 60 cases at any given time. They see students and families as often as necessary, depending on the severity of the situation, and often work with local school districts to educate teachers across the state.
“We can’t keep just expanding and expanding with the amount of staff we have, right?” Wadsworth said. “We want to work smarter, not harder.”
Short delay anticipated in audiology services
The school has also seen a rise in the number of mobile lab audiological screenings and campus clinic evaluations it does each year, jumping from 1,366 mobile screenings in 2010 to 16,573 this year and driving an average of 20,000 miles per year, according to school data.
But with the move, School for the Deaf students can also anticipate a disruption in audiology services offered by the campus because of the time it will take to disassemble, move and reassemble the school’s sound booth used to evaluate students, according to a presentation by school officials to the South Dakota Board of Regents last week in Pierre.
It should not affect the mobile lab in any way, officials said.
“Since this needs to be done by a vendor, it will be dependent on the facility renovation timetable and the vendor’s schedule,” the report states. “There will be minimal change in outreach services beyond setting up new offices.”
Renovations to the school’s new location are expected to be finished in the near future, and school officials are expected to present a new three-year strategic plan to the Board of Regents for review in October.
“We’re going to have to do some brainstorming, I think, to figure out how do we address some of those needs,” Kaiser said. “It may not be in the ways they’ve been addressed before, but that’s our challenge. If we’ve got these kids, and they’ve been identified as needing service, then it’s up to us to figure out what we’re going to do.”