BRATTLEBORO -- Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing President Bill Gurney knows there is a future for the organization, but at this point he just doesn’t know exactly what it is.
Advancements in medicine and technology, changes in education law, soaring fuel costs and a stubborn economy that refuses to turn the corner have all led to years of declining enrollment and ever-rising costs at The Austine School for the Deaf.
Deaf students have been attending school on the sprawling 174-acre Austine School campus since 1908, and at one time there were 145 residential students there. But the school is almost out of money and the board is expected in the next month or so to decide if classes will be held next September.
Along with the residential Austine School program, which currently only has about 25 students, The Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing runs statewide consulting services, a bi-lingual preschool, an audiology center and an equipment distribution center.
In the next few months the board will have to decide how the organization is going to survive the current financial crisis while planning for a future that could end up being very different from the past 106 years.
"We need to decide what the future is going to look like for us here on campus," Gurney said. "There are some big decisions to make, and at a school that has been functioning continuously since 1908 these decisions involve many more people that just the board.
The challenges facing The Austine School are similar to those that other residential deaf schools are confronting across the country, and they are coming from a number of different directions.
It used to take parents two or three years before they could be sure if their children were deaf.
Successful cochlear implants and computer assisted programs and technologies make it much easier and cheaper for deaf students to learn in a mainstream classroom. And as school districts look to save every penny, developing internal programs and supports will always be cheaper than sending a student to a residential school like Austine.
"I look at the numbers, and it is clear that we have lost our critical mass here in Vermont," said Terry Keegan, Director of the Regional Consulting Services Program at The Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
The Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing has a contract with the Agency of Human Services to work with deaf children and their families, and Keegan oversees about 600 cases across the state. And while that program is sustainable, Keegan said on average the 12 counselors she manages meet with families only a handful of times every year.
There are pressures to find more students to bring on to campus, but Keegan said the truth is that most of the deaf children in Vermont are probably better served in their home school districts.
"In the past, many of these kids might have come here, and it was a Mecca for them and their families. They found this place and the people they met here became their brothers and sisters," she said. "But it is very different now. Parents don’t want to send their kids to a residential school if they don’t have to."
Along with medical and technological changes, Vermont, and the rest of the country, have seen a shift away from residential schools following the passage of The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1975. IDEA requires schools to make accommodations for students with disabilities, and Vermont is a leader in encouraging more inclusion in mainstream classrooms, and not less.
Keegan has been at VCDHH for 20 years, and she said it has been unsettling to watch the energy slowly drain out of the organization. Still she said the center has a lot to offer, and she is supportive of the tough questions the board and administration have been asking.
"Many of these kids just don’t need the support if they can get that support in their home district," said Keegan. "I feel like there are certain programs that are sustainable and then there are some that I don’t think are. It’s hard for people to make those hard decisions but I think someone has to make them. What’s happening here at Austine is happening nationwide at other schools for the deaf, and the smaller schools are the ones that are being pounded."
Gurney said the tough decisions the board faces have been building for years but the heightened sense of urgency at the school was forced by a few different issues that arose recently.
Enrollment for the 2013-14 school year was much lower than administrators expected. And when the school was already barely getting by with the number of students it had, a drop off of even a few students made a big difference.
The economy also had an impact. Donations and grants have slowed, leaving the organization with a wider gap between the money coming in and the money going out. Most significantly, he said, the board and former administration over the past few years used the school’s endowment to make ends meet, and, simply put, there is no money left to meet current obligations.
"We’ve reached the point where we can no longer cover our deficits by tapping into the endowment," Gurney said. "The question for our board is, ‘Can we continue to function as a residential school given the size of the campus with only 20 or 25 students?’"
The board has already taken some painful steps. An employee was laid off, and everyone took a six percent pay cut. Hours were slashed across the board, payments into the staff 401K account were halted and the board is considering changes to the health insurance policy. There was a $750,000 deficit this year and the school is facing payments on its $1.3 million line of credit.
If the school closes next year, Gurney said about half of the approximately 100 employees at VCDHH will lose their jobs.
But, in perhaps the most significant admission yet that things are changing at Austine School, the board earlier this year voted to change the mission. For more than 100 years the Austine School has been committed to educating students who were deaf and hard of hearing. Under the new mission the school will "empower deaf and hard of hearing individuals, as well as all individuals who would benefit from comprehensive educational, social and support services."
Gurney said Austine is looking to possibly partner with another school that serves children on the Autism spectrum, or maybe even develop a housing development that would serve seniors who are deaf or hard of hearing.
"Over the last 30 years there has been a steady trend of serving more students in their home school," Gurney said. "Over that time there have been fewer and fewer students on campus. The main focus for 100 years was on servicing students on campus, and changing to a new model hasn’t been as smooth as perhaps it should have been. People really didn’t see this coming as quickly as it has."
Losing a family
Michael Carter is president of the Austine School Alumni Association. He arrived at Austine School in kindergarten and graduated in 1991.
Speaking through an interpreter, Carter, who lives in Brattleboro, said the move away from residential deaf and hard of hearing programs is a mistake. Deaf and hard of hearing students who attend mainstream school will always be outsiders, he said, struggling to fit in and communicate with peers.
At Austine School, Carter found deaf role models, he played sports and made strong connections with people he still sees today. By the time he graduated, he said, he had become a role model for other younger students
"A deaf individual in a residential program has so many more opportunities," Carter said. "A hearing parent comes from a different culture, and it won’t help their kids to send them to a mainstream school. They will never have the same opportunities there."
Carter still visits the Austine campus regularly, meeting with staff, administration and students. He said it has been very hard to watch the school struggle over the past few years and while it has been apparent that fewer students have been attending every year he still is having a hard time accepting that the school might close.
"It is so hard to see a place that I cherish go through something like this. It is a second home for me," he said. "There is so much history there. It is really sad. I want to get more people there. I want to get more support for the school, but it feels like it is too late."
There is tension in the deaf community over the changes facing schools like Austine.
Some advocates say deaf children who do not learn American Sign Language risk reaching their full potential of communicating.
"While the regular classroom in the neighborhood school may be the appropriate placement for some deaf and hard of hearing students, for many it is not," the National Association of the Deaf says.
Mary Essex, an Austine alum and President of the Vermont Association of the Deaf, said the former administration was not as open about the challenges facing the school, and she said it has been frustrating to learn that the school was in such deep distress.
She said Austine School should be able to find the students it needs to survive and could do a better job of supporting deaf individuals all over Vermont.
"It would be very disappointing if they decide to close," Essex said. "There are students who benefit from the program. Technology does not teach people to be social. It does not teach students how to communicate with people. Deaf students do not have to feel more isolated than they already are."
Making a plan
Gurney said the board can keep things as they are and try to make it through another school year, or decide to close the school and put its energies into the programs that are sustainable.
Part of the challenge he said is maintaining the historic buildings on campus, which cost about $1.1 million to maintain every year. Gurney is looking into selling off some of the land, developing senior housing, leasing land for a solar farm, renting some of the space to another school of organization, or maybe partnering with another school to start a new program.
"The first decision is what will happen next year," Gurney said. "But this will not be the final version of what the campus will look like or what we as an organization will look like down the road. It is the start of a rebuilding process that we’re not really sure what direction that will take us over the next three to five years."
The number of students who might enroll in Austine next year looks good now, but he stressed that as an organization, there is no money to overcome a deficit if the numbers don’t add up.
"There is a sense on the board’s part that we need to look at all options," said Gurney. "There are a lot of people in Vermont, and elsewhere who have a strong love for Austine School. We want to respect that love for the school and be sure that whatever decision is made is based on whether we can continue to function as Austine. We’re going to do our best to explore any options that will enable us to keep that tradition alive. Because once you give up something like a residential program it gets harder and harder to bring it back later on."