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As families opt for local schools, enrollment drops at ND School for the Deaf. What’s best for the kids?

Teacher Wendy Palmer conducts a reading lesson Feb. 20 at the North Dakota School for the Deaf in Devils Lake. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor 1 / 5
Students’ coats hang outside their classroom Feb. 20 at the North Dakota School for the Deaf in Devils Lake. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor 2 / 5
A trophy case is seen Feb. 20 at the North Dakota School for the Deaf in Devils Lake. The school was once a powerhouse in Class B basketball. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor 3 / 5
North Dakota School for the Deaf Superintendent Connie Hovendick talks about the school’s on- and off-campus services Feb. 20 in Devils Lake. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor 4 / 5
This aerial photograph shows the North Dakota School for the Deaf on Feb. 20 in Devils Lake. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor 5 / 5

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. — As a deaf student in a mainstream school, Chris Peterson said he felt alone and isolated.

He remembers sitting in the front of the classroom so he could see a sign-language interpreter, but it was hard to keep up because he had to watch the interpreter and what was written on the whiteboard.

What might have been easier for students without a disability was exhausting for Peterson.

“I didn’t feel equal to the other students,” he said of his 1½-year experience in a West Fargo school. “I felt completely lost and lonely.”

It’s why he went back to the North Dakota School for the Deaf in Devils Lake, where he said he had more opportunities to play sports, meet others and fit in.

However, advancements in technology and a desire to keep children close to home have swayed many families to enroll students in local schools rather than the School for the Deaf, where students live on campus during the school week.

The School for the Deaf, established in 1890, has seen a sharp decline in enrollment in recent decades, going from a high of 140 students in the late 1930s to a current enrollment of 18 students, according to the school.

Peterson, who graduated from the school in 2000 and lives in Mapleton, N.D., noticed the dwindling numbers.

In the '80s, yearly enrollment averaged 97 students, but dropped to 48 in the '90s. In 2012, the facility closed its high school, and now offers only K-8 education.

A factor in the enrollment decline was a law Congress passed in the 1970s that opened public schools for equal education of students with disabilities.

“Over time, families started using the public schools more, not having their kids sent to a residential facility,” said School for the Deaf Superintendent Connie Hovendick.

Another factor has been medical advancements such as vaccinations for illnesses that cause deafness, newborn hearing screenings and early intervention. Hovendick said new technology, like cochlear implants that can improve hearing, has given parents more options when it comes to deciding where their kids go to school.

Devils Lake mandate

The state constitution says the School for the Deaf must be in Devils Lake, a city of almost 7,200 residents in northeast North Dakota.

Peterson said it’s hard to convince parents to put their children in a school far away from home, especially in a town with limited housing, amenities and job options like Devils Lake. His mother had a hard time deciding whether to enroll him in the specialized school, he said.

“A lot of parents who have deaf children want to be close where they can see their everyday activities,” he said.

Peterson believes having the school in a larger city with more job and housing options could convince parents to enroll their children in the School for the Deaf.

Hovendick disputed that claim. She said the school ideally would be located in central North Dakota.

“Moving the school wouldn’t help because we are serving the whole state,” she said. “The center is just where you start.”

Staff and administration have rebranded the school as a resource center, offering services and training across the state. The school changed its name in 2012 to the North Dakota School for the Deaf/Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

The resource center served 179 school-age children in more than 40 communities around the state in the 2017-18 school year, including the students at the Devils Lake school. It also helped 34 children through its parent-infant program.

The center has outreach offices in several cities to support families and provide sign-language classes.

The center’s fastest growing program, Hovendick said, is the adult outreach program, which offers services for North Dakota residents who have hearing loss. That includes installing equipment — alarm clocks and caption phones, for example — in their homes.

Mainstream vs. specialized schools

Most of the children referred to the North Dakota School for the Deaf have more than one disability, Hovendick said.

“If you’re a bright student, and your only issue is deafness, you can make it in the public school with an interpreter,” she said.

But some like Peterson say students feel more comfortable and learn more efficiently in a specialized school instead of a mainstream school. Not everyone understands deaf culture, meaning students can feel isolated in local schools, he said.

The students at the School for the Deaf last year came from 10 communities across the state. Most were from Devils Lake or other cities in northeast North Dakota, but one came from Dickinson, about 275 miles southwest of Devils Lake.

The school has six teachers. Students live in residential halls on the Devils Lake campus, and the state pays for them to be transported on weekends to and from their homes, Hovendick said.

Declining numbers are not uncommon for deaf schools across the U.S., said Jeff Bravin, executive director for the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Conn., and president-elect for the Conference of Educational Administrators of Schools and Programs for the Deaf. Enrollment trends vary from state to state, with some staying steady or increasing in recent years, he said.

Bravin's school, the oldest of its kind in the nation, has seen its numbers stabilize recently after years of decline, he said. The school is starting to see growth in enrollment, he said, attributing that to good educators and the realization mainstream schools are not right for some students.

"You can't say which is right," he said of where to enroll children, adding that educators should not take a one-size-fits-all approach. "It's really important to evaluate each individual child."

Another school that's seen growth in recent years is the Metro Deaf School in St. Paul, said Susan Lane-Outlaw, executive director of the non-residential school. Students have moved from within the state and across the country to attend school there, including one from North Dakota.

Lane-Outlaw credits job and housing options in the Twin Cities, as well as a diverse population that gives families a chance to find connections. She said through research, she found that deaf schools in large urban areas tend to be non-residential and typically have experienced growth.

Hovendick said she wasn’t sure how low enrollment would have to get before the school in Devils Lake would close. She said the school would remain open until, for whatever reason, it could no longer provide services.

She believes there will always be a need for a resource center for the deaf in North Dakota.

“Our goal is to be the experts and provide high-quality education,” she said.

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