MAU deaf education program to end

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BENNINGTON -- After educating a small group of deaf children at the middle school since 2000, Bennington's deaf education program for children will be closing at the conclusion of the school year.

Although, unlike many businesses and organizations that are shutting their doors because of the economy, the regional day school run by the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing at Mount Anthony Union Middle School is closing because the deaf population that has been in the program since its inauguration is moving on.

The "school within a school," as director Brenda Seitz calls it, has educated six students since being installed in Bennington and this year has three eighth-grade students who will soon graduate and one in seventh grade -- all of whom have been in the program since 2000.

"We are closing this program in June because you can't run a program with one child and no peers," Seitz said.

The regional school in Bennington is one of four the VCDHH operates around the state. The schools were set up as an alternative to Vermont's only residential school for the deaf, the VCDHH Austine School in Brattleboro, which has a 200-acre campus and about 65 deaf students from age three to 22.

"Parents with a deaf kid don't want to send their 3-year-old to Brattleboro to live in a dorm ... so we have these regional schools so kids don't have to leave their families," Seitz said.

The VCDHH's regional schools are set up based on the needs of a community, and if the deaf population grows in the future, it could be reestablished in Bennington, Seitz said.

Students in the independent school take some MAU classes with the help of an interpreter, such as classes in computers, art and physical education, while the core classes are taught in deaf educator Ruthann Weaver's classroom.

"We want them to understand both worlds," Seitz said. "We want them to be out there with their hearing peers when they can be."

While in Weaver's class, students learn the same material students in any other middle school would be learning -- through an altered delivery.

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"To the best of our ability the curriculum is the same," Seitz said. "We look at the SVSU curriculum and see what they teach ... and we take those same units and adapt them."

In Weaver's class, she teaches everything through sign language, and also says out loud what she is teaching for students who can hear limited sound.

Sign language, she said, makes some subjects such as writing more difficult because there is the same sign for different tenses of words and different signs for words that have multiple meanings, which makes the translation to English difficult. However, in many subjects the students are just as proficient as any kid their age, Weaver said.

"There's a misconception that deaf students are different. They have normal abilities, the only thing they can't do is hear," Weaver said. "I expect them to learn anything a hearing kid can learn, period."

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Attending a school with such a small class size of the same students each year has brought the students together and Weaver said the kids help each other in the classroom every day.

"They've been together for so long they are like siblings," Seitz said.

But because the deaf students attend some mainstream classes, they have also gotten to know other students at MAU, Seitz said.

The interaction between the deaf students and other students at MAU has helped spark an interest in some hearing students to learn sign language to help communicate.

Weaver said she started an after-school sign language club after she was approached by a group of students who wanted to learn the language.

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Bennington's regional school uses two small rooms in the middle school, one of which has a video phone for Weaver to communicate face-to-face with the students' parents when a call home is necessary. For those conferences, Weaver does sign language in front of a video camera that transmits the video to a television at home so the parents that are also deaf can communicate back and forth.

It's also used in place of students being sent to the principal's office. If a student gets in trouble, that student sits in front of the camera and communicates with Seitz, whose office is in Brattleboro.

Modern technology, including texting, has helped improve communication in deaf education from when Weaver began her career as a deaf educator nearly 30 years ago. It's also made teaching in the classroom much easier.

"The more visual teaching is, the better it is," Weaver said. "With the Internet, you can pretty much pull up anything off a computer in a few minutes and show examples."

After this school year is complete and three of the four deaf students graduate eighth grade, Seitz said the graduating students and their parents have a decision to make on whether to send the students to MAU High School or the Austine School.

Seitz said she's preparing the parents for that transition and providing families with as much information she can about both options.

Of the two former students of Bennington's regional school, one went on to attend MAUHS and the other is at the Austine School, Seitz said.

The VCDHH contracts one-on-one deaf educators that can help at schools with too few deaf students to start a regional school, which Seitz said is an option at the middle school next year.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com


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