photo - Jones Hall at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind campus is shown during a renovation project in this 2017 Gazette file photo by Dougal Brownlie.
Jones Hall at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind campus is shown during a renovation project in this 2017 Gazette file photo by Dougal Brownlie. 

An operational audit of the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind will be conducted after detailed concerns about the school were presented in a briefing to the Legislature's Joint Budget Committee.

The Colorado Department of Education will hire a contractor to conduct an independent, external review of the school, said Melissa Colsman, associate commissioner of student learning.

"Our goal would be to have the review completed within the calendar year," she said.

Along with operations, management and finances, academic performance, expectations and outcomes will be scrutinized, Colsman said. Interviews with staff, students and parents, and opportunity for public comment will be part of the process.

The development came after a staff analyst for the JBC - a group of six legislators who analyze management, operations, programs and financial needs of Colorado government agencies and institutions and make budget recommendations - prepared and presented the report to members in December.

Before JBC members decided whether they would sponsor legislation to force an independent analysis, school leaders asked state Education Department officials about working together to initiate such a review, which was stipulated in a Feb. 20 letter..

"We wanted to go ahead and do an independent program review so we can get information so we can know what's going well and in what areas they want us to grow," said school spokeswoman Diane Covington.

The action is moving forward with approval from CSBD's superintendent and the school's seven-member gubernatorial appointed board, which governs the state-funded, nonprofit school, Colsman said.

"The superintendent let us know that was something she felt was appropriate," Colsman said. "The board takes it very seriously; these are folks committed to a cause, working to and supporting the students."

A separate committee of staff from both organizations, along with parents, teachers, professionals, members of the deaf and the blind communities, and national experts will spearhead the examination.

"We're working with individuals who we think would bring a neutral, objective view," Colsman said.

Concerns about education of deaf

The Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind was founded in Colorado Springs in 1874 and is the only school of its kind in the state. The historic campus in the Middle Shooks Run neighborhood east of downtown serves about 210 deaf, blind and hearing- and vision-impaired students from ages 3 to 21. About 80 students live on campus. Outreach programs serve more than 700 students statewide.

The call for the report was not a surprise to state education officials.

The JBC had fielded complaints about deaf education and certain aspects of the school for more than a year, Colsman said.

Concerns about deaf education date to 2011, said Sara Kennedy, executive director of Colorado Hands & Voices, a statewide organization that supports families with children who are deaf.

That's when a group of nearly 90 parents, former teachers, professionals and community members formed a coalition to examine the state of deaf education in Colorado and call for reform. The school was involved with the movement at the time.

"We didn't set out to complain about one institution but to bring all the folks to the table to establish a statewide strategic plan for deaf education," Kennedy said.

Such a plan still hasn't materialized, she said, and the school pulled out of the group in 2015, when a document titled "Seven agreements for re-envisioning deaf education" was drafted.

"I have a letter saying the school did not support the seven agreements and had their own strategic plan in place and didn't need to participate," Kennedy said. "The document has fairly standard concerns about professional development, assessment, data collection, parent engagement, and there was no disagreement about any of those concepts until we got to regional programs."

The school develops its own strategic plan every three years, involving input from various groups who have an interest in the school, Covington said.

Among the issues highlighted in the JBC report:

- Academic expectations for CSDB students appear to be too low and outcomes are inadequate, particularly given the school's per-pupil spending.

- Qualified math and science teachers are lacking.

- The school's board "does not appear to function as a governing board with close oversight" and may not have the expertise to address student achievement or school administration.

- Referencing a long-standing controversy in deaf education, instruction for deaf and hearing-impaired students is believed to fall short by focusing on American Sign Language and not verbal communication, which can cause problems for students with cochlear implants and those assimilating into the nonhearing-impaired society.

- Admission policies are incongruent with other public school districts in terms of requiring students' home districts to pay the cost of one-on-one paraprofessional support.

- CSDB has the right to turn away some students whose needs may be too severe, which other public schools cannot do.

- Off-campus early intervention programs for newborns to 3-year-old deaf students do not adhere to best practices, with short staffing, confidentiality concerns and insufficient outreach services.

"The CSDB, however, would most likely disagree that many of the specific issues raised are actually problems," the report states.

McElhany: Compare similar schools elsewhere

CSDB board member Andy McElhany said the student body is challenging - 100 percent of students are on "individual education plans" and need special education services. And the school's designation as an "alternative education campus" carries the assumption that standardized test scores will not be on par with state averages, he said.

While student performance overall is low, McElhany said, "If we measure the year-over-year increases in the same kids, it's not that bad."

Kennedy said when the school became an alternative education campus, it discontinued accreditation from an organization that specializes in deaf schools, which she believes did not bode well for academic achievement.

Likewise, costs are higher to provide services to special-needs students, said McElhany, who served in Colorado's General Assembly from 1994 to 2008. He first got involved with the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind when he was a member of the House of Representatives and the school was in his district.

"What we do is expensive," he said. I don't think there's any problem with the finances - it's all regularly audited."

While it's difficult to compare services the CSDB provides to traditional public school districts, the report states, "It is clear, however, that the per pupil spending amounts at CSDB ($56,799 per pupil in fiscal year 2016-17 for on-campus educational expenses) are higher than the levels seen in local districts for that size of population."

Residential programming added another $29,435 per student last fiscal year.

School staff noted that public school districts of comparable size, with roughly 200 students on campus, would likely receive approximately $13,000 per pupil through the state's school financing formula, and also other revenue for educating disabled children.

McElhany said he would like to see cost comparisons to other schools for the deaf and the blind around the nation.

Hands off by CDE?

The report also questioned the role of the Colorado Department of Education.

The school is classified as a "type one agency," meaning operational oversight was removed from the state's Education Department and placed under the school's board of trustees.

"In my discussion with people at CDE, that's the way they like it," McElhany said. "They don't have any specific expertise in deaf and blind education."

One recently remedied problem was that there had been no representative from the CDE on the school's board as a nonvoting member in years, Colsman said.

"Through this process, we realized that there was a resignation of the CDE's member on the board that we had neglected to fill," she said.

Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes in November appointed Paul Foster, who oversees exceptional student services at the CDE, and in January he started attending CSDB board meetings as an ex-officio member.

"This review will look at the processes within the school, identify the strengths that need to continue to be built on and room for improvement that can be targeted and systemically addressed," Foster said.

Kennedy said she was notified a few weeks ago that an accountability committee for the school's birth-through-age-3 outreach program is being reinstated, which she sees as a positive step.

"As parents, we think there's not one thing that would increase kids' achievement but a whole host of things that need to be built around them," she said.

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