Families, Communities, and Schools—A Mutual Partnership
As a hard of hearing student, I had the supports I needed in elementary school to be successful and learn alongside my hearing peers when I was in the general education classroom—a sign language interpreter, preferential seating at the front of the room, and a personal FM system that helped me better distinguish my teachers’ voices from the classroom ambience (an FM system is a wireless assistive hearing device that assists people who are hard of hearing by transmitting sound from the source—usually a microphone worn by a teacher—to a listener). Many of my hearing classmates even learned sign language. As far as I know, no one told them to—it was easy for them to pick up simply by having me and an interpreter around every day.
I also had one-on-one/small group instruction with the speech therapist and the Deaf/Hard of Hearing (D/HH) resource teacher—an educational professional who specialized in supporting deaf and hard of hearing students. The one-on-one instruction helped me learn valuable social skills—things that most kids my age simply picked up on by osmosis and overhearing their peers and parents resolve conflicts and engage in everyday encounters. Thanks to their training and individualized attention, my speech therapist and resource teacher were able to catch those little areas of deficiency and fill in the gaps in a way my general education teacher did not.
I am grateful for this academic foundation, but the downside was that my school, as wonderful and supportive as it was, was not in my neighborhood. I attended a more local school for kindergarten and first grade, but when that school closed, the D/HH program relocated to a school farther away—a 30-minute drive and even longer bus ride. My parents thought it was best to stay with the teachers who knew and supported me, so I went where the program went. Most, if not all, of the other deaf and hard of hearing students did the same. So looking back, I suspect the district was not equipped to provide accommodations at every school. It was easier for the district if we were all in the same place instead of spread out at different schools throughout the city.
While that made for a relatively cohesive social dynamic at school, it did not carry over as seamlessly to my life outside of school. My friends from my neighborhood and church didn’t have the same exposure to my supportive environment as my classmates did, and I didn’t want to feel “different” among them. As a result, my local community was not as intuitive about learning how to be more accessible or communicate with me, nor was I particularly eager for them to learn sign language or do anything—however helpful—that might highlight my “difference.” That is not to say that my neighborhood or family did nothing to advocate for my needs. They certainly did, but without the organic support of a nearby local school, advocacy was an isolating endeavor.
In contrast, the state school for the deaf, located in a suburb of my metropolitan area, is situated in an accessible community. The school’s outreach programs provide support for deaf and hard of hearing students, even those who opted for public school over the school for the deaf. The school provides FM systems, evaluations, and even professional development, as needed, to students in the public schools. Doing so strengthens the school for the deaf’s ties to the community, and when I attended college in that area, I was struck by how accessible it was compared to my hometown. Cashiers, restaurant servers, other retail employees, and even passersby often knew at least a little bit of sign language and communicated intuitively with me—they knew to face me and speak clearly, without any prompting. Even the movie theater was among the first in the metropolitan area to show subtitled versions of the latest blockbusters. For the most part, everywhere I went, people seemed at ease with my “difference,” which helped me feel a greater sense of belonging. All because the deaf school engaged with the community, and the community responded in kind.
One of SWIFT’s five domains is Family and Community Engagement, and for good reason. A mutual partnership between families/communities and schools is vital for students’ well-rounded success, both academically and socially. But if the school is too far away, then both the student and their community miss out on that mutually beneficial relationship. It may be more convenient for districts to designate certain supports for certain subgroups of students to just one or two schools, but that is only a short-term solution.
Just like in real estate, location, location, location matters. Equipping every school to provide equity-based inclusive education ensures access for both students and their communities. A supportive, enriching school environment is a good thing and should be celebrated, but when it’s far from home, its effects are less fruitful than they could be. On the other hand, when the community and school are close to and all in with each other, conditions are ripe for student flourishing.