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The Louisiana School for the Deaf is in trouble. Today, we discuss it – in American Sign Language

The Louisiana School for the Deaf is not up to standards. Not only is enrollment declining, but over the summer, the superintendent of Louisiana’s schools for the deaf and visually impaired, Ernest Garrett III, was dismissed. And more recently, the director and principal of LSD, Heather Laine, was dismissed as well. Both for unclear reasons.

To learn more about this turmoil and turnover, we speak to Jay Isch, Executive Director of Deaf Focus for the Louisiana Association of the Deaf. He was joined by American Sign Language interpreter Sylvie Sullivan.

This Wednesday, November 16 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of two Southern University students at the hands of police, Leonard Brown and Denver Smith. The college students were killed during protests at Southern’s campus, which implored then-Governor Edwin Edwards to send in the national guard. But despite the murders, no officer was ever charged with a crime.

Drew Hawkins, a graduate student at LSU and Brittany Dunn, a Southern University Law Student, have been investigating this case with the LSU Cold Case Project as part of a four-part narrative series. They join us for more on what they’ve uncovered in their reporting.

Transcription of the conversation between WWNO’s Alana Schreiber and Jay Isch, executive director of Deaf Focus for the Louisiana Association of the Deaf, joined by interpreter Sylvie Sullivan. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity

Alana Schreiber: The Louisiana School for the Deaf is having a lot of problems arising. There's enrollment decrease, and teachers are supposedly not teaching ASL. Why? What's happening? 

Jay Isch: Well, it's a mess frankly. There are a lot of reasons for the declining enrollment. One is that during a pandemic, a lot of families wanted the children to stay at home for health reasons, of course. And some of them decided not to send their children back to school afterwards. And also, I feel like some families were satisfied with the oversight of the special school district and they wanted to have stability for their children.

But the special school district has a very high rate of turnover and they have a lack of expertise in deaf education, which is why you need to have deaf experts in place who know how to run the school for the deaf.

Now information about teachers not teaching American sound language is not actually accurate. Almost all of the teachers at the school for the deaf are proficient in American Sign Language, and they also go beyond just quote unquote teaching ASL. They are teaching the curriculum and everything in American Sign Language. The administration has chased some staff away from the school, and a lot of teachers and staff have resigned because they feel oppressed and they feel that it's a hostile working environment.

Children are turned away because the school doesn't have enough staff to care for them, and open staff positions are not being filled with competent, qualified staff because the low student enrollment doesn't support the need for more teachers. So it looks like the school has created a lack of qualified staff. They're using that to justify not filling positions because there's not enough students. It's as if the special school district is almost purposely starving the school, trying to close it.

AS: Well, the previous principal, she took the school position and she raised it a little from F to D, she was fired. Now the Louisiana Association of the Deaf Organization, they want her to be reinstated? Why? 

JI: I want to clarify something. Bringing the school great from an F to a D is actually a huge accomplishment. The school has been an at an F grade for over 10 years straight. And all over Louisiana, the pandemic has severely impacted attendance in all the schools.

Truancy rates were very high and the school for the deaf was also impacted by that as well. But what's hurting the school the most is the state testing score. Do you know that the school gets a lot of students transferred from mainstream school and they are behind on language, and the state expects those teachers at the school to work miracles to get them on par with their peers immediately.

A lot of people also don't consider that most students that we have from outside schools coming to the Louisiana School for the Deaf are far behind in language. And it takes a lot of hours and intervention and immersion to get the students to grow linguistically to where they're supposed to be when they come to the school early enough.

But when they come to the school much later, the brain plateaus when it comes to language acquisition. So you can only imagine for yourself, if you didn't have any language right now it would be really hard to learn a second language, right? Yeah. How would you be able to take a test?

We have people evaluating the quality of your school based on how well you do on that test when you don't even have a language in the first place. And that's where the school has been failing for so many years because the school receives students who are already language deprived, and it's not fair to score the Louisiana School for the Deaf based on how they're performing against a school that has children whose families can communicate with them a hundred percent of the time.

Most of our students, they're come from families who are hearing, meaning they don't know Sign Language often, and that's where the barrier comes in for mainstream students. Now, Dr. Laine has that in-depth background knowledge of knowing how to work with those students who are language deprived, and to be able to bring them up to meeting expectations.

She had so many barriers that she was facing, plus the pandemic, the test scores and the staff shortage, and she still was able to bring the school grade from an F to a D. And that's an incredible accomplishment. My hats off to her.

AS: I'm wondering, if the school has no principal, how will it manage? What's next? 

JI: So right now the SSD put someone to oversee the instruction in interim. It's kind of messy though, because that person is not qualified. They don't have expertise in deaf education Dr. Laine, at the time, wore several hats and she did a lot for the school. So now they have to face firsthand what Dr. Laine was doing to keep the school functioning.

And that's why it's so crucial that the Special School District reinstates Dr. Lane, the principal,, because she has been and will continue to be what the deaf community requests.

AS: You know, there's mainstream education and there's deaf education. Some people assume that mainstream is better, but it's important to have both options. Tell me why.

JI: Because educating deaf students is not just a matter of what is accessible. Just because something is accessible doesn't mean that the learning is appropriate or otherwise received by the students, right? It's important to have expertise in deaf education. Because those experts, they're able to tell us whether something is accessible and appropriate for any given student.

It's important that they listen to the experts in deaf education so that they can provide. The Louisiana School for the Deaf is meant to have the experts, but for so long the Special School District has been trying to mold LSD to fit the hearing norm.

The school for the deaf provides deaf children the opportunity to not be isolated. The opportunity for visual learning with the use of ASL, the opportunity to have a healthy, social wellbeing, the opportunity to be friends with their peers, the opportunity to play sports, and the list goes on and on. And I'd like to add that I grew up going to a school for the deaf, and I would've never traded that experience for anything else in the world.

If I may add, I wanna mention that deaf advocates like me and other people are often perceived as aggressive, but it's the common talking point of those who work to oppress us – the culturally deaf people who use American Sign Language. The deaf community has been fighting this battle here just to be understood for over 200 years, and it's not over.

AS: I'm wondering, overall, what's your message about accessible, but also appropriate deaf education? 

JI: Mainstream schools cost the state more money. Believe it or not, deaf schools are cheaper because all the students are together in one place. And you put all the resources in that same location. When you have one student in a mainstream school, they are using interpreters from the community. Each is put into different schools, and that creates a shortage of sign language interpreters in the community. So now in our community, we're having issues with a terrible shortage of interpreters because mainstream schools think that interpreters are enough accessibility for those students.

But in most situations, deaf students are still isolated in those settings. They don't have a language rich environment. It's not a matter of being accessible only, it's more a matter of giving the child the opportunity to thrive in a language rich environment.

Today’s episode of Louisiana Considered was hosted byAlana Schreiber. Our digital editor is Katelyn Umholtz and our engineers are Garrett Pittman, Aubry Procell, and Thomas Walsh. 

You can listen to Louisiana Considered Monday through Friday at 12:00 and 7:30 pm. It’s available on Spotify, Google Play, and wherever you get your podcasts. 

Louisiana Considered wants to hear from you! Please fill out ourpitch line to let us know what kinds of story ideas you have for our show. And while you’re at it, fill out ourlistener survey! We want to keep bringing you the kinds of conversations you’d like to listen to.

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Alana Schreiber is the managing producer for the live daily news program, Louisiana Considered. She comes to WWNO from KUNC in Northern Colorado, where she worked as a radio producer for the daily news magazine, Colorado Edition. She has previously interned for Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul and The Documentary Group in New York City.