State excuses blind school's failings

Published July 29, 2009 8:19 pm

Education » Parents say the probe incomplete and file an appeal.
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Incomplete student evaluations, untrained teachers and poor Braille translations of textbooks and test booklets are among failings cited in a state probe of Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind.

But these problems don't constitute a violation of state and federal laws guaranteeing visually impaired children a "free, appropriate education," say the report's authors.

The July probe was launched in response to a complaint filed by the National Federation for the Blind, alleging deeply rooted problems at the deaf and blind schools and lax oversight by the Utah State Office of Education.

Though vindicated by some of the findings, the federation is filing an appeal.

Ron Gardner, president of the federation's Utah chapter, wants an independent evaluation and likens the state probe to "people within the state office asking themselves if they've done a good job."

Unlike school districts that have some autonomy, the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind (USDB) falls under the state office.

The Ogden-based special education program serves 2,200 students, most of them in neighborhood schools. Through outreach to partnering districts, it supplies Braille textbooks and other instructional aids and guides teachers on student evaluations and education plans.

But no formal agreement exists, leading to educational disparities and confusion about who pays for services and who is responsible for providing them, say parents behind the national federation's complaint.

Parents contend arbitrary "first-come, first-serve" rules dictate when students get Braille books, embossers and electronic note-taking equipment. And there's little quality control to ensure Braille translations are accurate.

Teachers aren't properly trained to evaluate students, say parents. As a result, students with progressive blindness or residual vision are denied early training in Braille -- a "wait to fail" model that hurts kids academically, says Gardner.

USDB public relations officer Kimberley Smale decline to comment, deferring to state officials.

State investigator Lisa Arbogast says she weighed the complaint "carefully and thoroughly."

A review of monitoring visits found USDB out of compliance with federal law 42 times between November 2006 and April 2008. USDB's failure to fix problems prodded the state to withhold funding last year and the year before.

Not all teachers are properly licensed or endorsed, investigators found. There's a problem with incomplete student evaluations, including failure to anticipate training needs in Braille and cane travel.

But Arbogast found no evidence of "systemic" problems with student evaluations. USDB is substantially compliant, she says. "But we did identify a few areas for improvement."

The state is working to remedy admittedly faulty Braille translations of books and testing material and will work with a consultant to train teachers and improve evaluations.

An outside evaluator will handle the federation's appeal.

kstewart@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">kstewart@sltrib.com

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