YAKIMA, Wash. — Sadie VanAllen thought she was giving her kids a shot at a better life when she moved from a two-bedroom apartment to a three-bedroom house on Yakima’s west side. The new place had separate rooms for her two growing children and a fenced yard for play. Conveniently, it was only about a seven-minute drive from Whitney Elementary School, where both of her kids were enrolled in the Yakima School District’s deaf education program.

But the move put VanAllen and her children outside of the Yakima district’s boundaries, and school district officials told her she could no longer keep her children enrolled in its deaf education program. They would have to transfer into the West Valley School District, which does not have an equivalent program and contracts with a third-party company for interpreters.

For weeks, VanAllen tried to figure out a solution with Yakima officials, who agreed to let her children stay for the rest of the school year. But the experience left her and her children shaken and at times uncertain how long they could continue to access the education resources the kids need.

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“It’s been a roller coaster,” VanAllen said. “I feel bad for my kids. I feel like I set them up for failure.”

Under different circumstances, VanAllen’s children may have been able to enroll in the district’s program even while living outside its boundaries. But the district has one deaf education teacher covering two elementary classrooms and has not been able to find a qualified teacher to help carry the load, said Nancy Smith, executive director of special education.

Yakima County and Washington state face a scarcity of qualified deaf education teachers and American Sign Language interpreters. The state also has limited options for training people to enter those specialized roles.

Some districts have found success with “growing their own” workforce by helping people obtain their deaf education or interpreter endorsements.

Camille Tree, a deaf education teacher in Sunnyside, is an example of that process. Her family is learning sign language after her daughter was identified as hard of hearing, and Camille eventually became a teacher.

“I tell people that deaf ed kind of found me,” she said.

The shortage

Several local school district officials and educators involved in deaf education noted that Yakima County is not unique in its shortage of deaf education teachers and interpreters.

Taralynn Petrites, the American Sign Language program coordinator for Central Washington University, which offers a bachelor of arts degree in deaf and sign language studies, said it’s a nationwide issue.

Shauna Bilyeu, superintendent of the Washington School for the Deaf, said in an email that even her school faces problems recruiting qualified deaf education teachers. When the school has an opening, it generally conducts a nationwide search. She has heard from educators at similar schools in other states that several of their positions remain unfilled.

“It is extremely concerning that we see our field shrinking,” Bilyeu wrote. “These students are some of the most vulnerable in terms of language deprivation and delays. It is imperative that they have good language models and teachers that are knowledgeable in differentiation.”

Multiple Yakima-area school districts report difficulties finding qualified teachers and interpreters for deaf students.

When one of the Yakima School District’s deaf education teachers left last year, the district immediately began to look for a suitable replacement. But months later, the district still has not found anyone to fill the position, Smith said. Two of the three applicants did not have backgrounds in American Sign Language, or ASL.

Currently, YSD has two deaf education teachers, one who teaches elementary students and one who handles the upper grades. The sole elementary teacher stepped up to cover two classes worth of students, Smith said. But with resources stretched thin, Smith said she could not in good conscience add students from outside the district to that class.

Yakima and Sunnyside are the only districts in the county with self-contained deaf education programs. They are the largest districts in the county.

Smaller districts have a few options for how to serve their deaf students. If it is available, schools can contract with larger districts to send their students to them. The child’s home district would pay for the services, and contracting out is generally more expensive than teaching in-house.

Yakima does not offer this option given its already strained resources, but has looked into it, Smith said.

Sunnyside allows other school districts to contract with it, special services director Cody Gardiner said. Though it does not have any contracted students this school year, in the past the district has worked with students from Grandview, Granger and Toppenish.

Educational Service District 105 is a regional support hub for schools in Yakima, Kittitas and parts of Klickitat and Benton counties. As part of its work, it provides specialized services for districts that may not be able to offer them in-house. But it no longer offers deaf education services, said executive director of special services Dana Floyd.

“That’s not for lack of trying,” she said. “We just cannot find highly qualified staff in our region.”

Floyd said sometimes job openings went two years without any qualified applicants reaching out.

Schools can also turn to third-party companies to provide interpreters for deaf or hard-of-hearing students if they cannot hire their own. The West Valley School District faced struggles finding interpreters and contracts with ASL Professionals to provide them, special education director Lucas Jaeger wrote in an email.

But even those third-party companies are struggling to find people willing to work in-person and can sometimes only provide virtual interpreters, Floyd said. Students can access remote interpreters through school-issued Chromebooks.

Families feel the squeeze

When VanAllen learned that her move outside the district’s boundaries threatened her kids’ chances of staying in the YSD’s deaf education program, she considered moving back to central Yakima. But she worried about the financial toll of such a move.

She spoke with her landlord about moving to a different house he managed within YSD’s boundaries, but it did not meet her needs. It was two stories, which would separate her from her kids, had fewer bedrooms and no fenced yard. The size of the house was a central issue. VanAllen is pregnant and she and her partner anticipate getting custody of his two children soon. That will quickly bring the number of kids in the house up to five.

VanAllen said her kids tried being in a general education class during part of the pandemic, but it went poorly. Her kids fell behind academically and her daughter would have outbursts in class. She didn’t want her kids to go through that again.

Her children are currently enrolled in YSD’s program despite the move. VanAllen spoke with several district officials trying to find a solution and felt frustrated by their communication. But she received permission from the district to keep her children enrolled through the end of the school year.

Next school year, she will send her son to the Washington School for the Deaf’s residential program in Vancouver. He’ll stay at the school during the week and come home during weekends. When her daughter is old enough, she’ll do the same. Though the idea worries her, VanAllen thinks she’ll feel better once her kids are both there.

“I think it’ll be a relief because I know that my kids are getting the education they need to be successful,” she said.

Limited training options

With families, educators and school districts struggling to find resources for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, it’s clear there’s a need to expand the workforce of deaf education teachers and interpreters. But in-state options for training that workforce are sparse.

The only collegiate educational interpreter training program is at Spokane Falls Community College. It’s been around for nearly 45 years. The program takes two years to complete and only accepts 25 new students a year.

Program lead Corrine Morrow said about half of their students already have a higher education degree of some kind but chose to come back to college to train as interpreters. The program is available in-person or online and attracts students from across Washington as well as other states.

The college wanted to make its program accessible to working students and parents, people who could not pick up their lives to move to Spokane.

“In order for it to fit whoever is wanting to come and become an interpreter, we had to be flexible,” Morrow said. “It was what was best for them and our community because we need more interpreters.”

The program includes classes on ASL, deaf culture, ethics and preparation for the interpretation exam that students must pass in order to work as educational interpreters in Washington. The program has also worked with Spokane Falls Community College’s Spanish language department on occasion to prepare its trainees for trilingual communication. Several local school districts and educators for the deaf said some students who come from Spanish-speaking households require these sorts of services.

Students get experience interpreting in the field before graduation, Morrow said. SFCC staff work to connect students with practicum opportunities close to them, generally working with local nonprofit groups.

Demand for interpreters is high and Morrow said sometimes the college has to turn down requests for their students’ services. Program faculty member Judith Throop said they direct organizations toward other interpreter services that may be able to fill that gap.

Upon completion of the SFCC program, students can continue their schooling, but many students connect with school districts and begin work as interpreters, Throop said. This gives students needed in-field experience, especially those who did not score high enough in their interpreter exam and are working to improve that score.

Closer to Yakima, CWU in Ellensburg has the first deaf studies program in the state. It covers not only ASL, but an emphasis on understanding deaf culture. The university is building a foundation for programs that would train people who want to work with deaf people, whether as interpreters, teachers or audiologists, Petrites said.

A grant proposal presented to the ;egislature would have given CWU $200,000 to establish an interpreter program that would provide free training for students, as long as graduates of the program committed to working as educational interpreters in Washington for at least two years. But that proposal fell through, Petrites said. She’s hoping it will gain more support in future years.

Washington currently has no in-state deaf educator training programs. According to the PESB website, Washington State University in Pullman and Whitworth University in Spokane offered training programs at one point. But neither university’s current websites make any mention of the option. A representative from WSU confirmed the college no longer offers deaf education endorsements.

One mother’s approach

With such difficulties finding qualified educators for the deaf, many schools have looked to embrace a “grow your own” model, where they partner directly with people who are training as interpreters or teachers. Parents of deaf or hard-of-hearing students make particularly strong candidates for this because they understand what it takes to support these types of students.

YSD’s Smith said she’s begun asking parents if they’d be interested in obtaining teaching certificates to work within the deaf education program. The district also offers ASL classes in its high schools and hopes to encourage some of them to pursue deaf education.

The grow-your-own model has seen some success in Sunnyside, where Camille Tree is one of the district’s deaf education teachers.

When her middle child Maya, now 9, was in kindergarten, she was identified as hard of hearing. Immediately, the Tree family began to learn sign language. The family still takes free signing classes offered by the Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Youth via Zoom. Tree also took her daughter to events for deaf people around the area to immerse herself in the culture.

When a deaf education teacher position opened up in Sunnyside, one of Tree’s friends urged her to apply. Initially, she was hesitant as she had no teaching background. But her time spent researching deaf culture and learning sign language would serve her well.

“I kind of had this ‘aha moment’ where I was like, ‘Well, I’m really good at advocating for her. I can do this for other kids, too,'” she said.

The district hired her as its deaf education teacher. Since then, she has met up with other deaf education professionals across Washington. They have been a supportive resource, but Tree, who is Latina and speaks Spanish, said she would like to see more diversity within the field.

Tree is working toward getting her National Board Certification for deaf education. She takes online training courses for it and the district reimburses some of the cost, but the process will still take two to three years.

In the meantime, Tree works to give deaf and hard-of-hearing students an engaging school experience. In December, she helped organize a Signing Santa event, where a graduate of the district’s deaf ed program dressed up as Santa Claus and communicated with her students in ASL. Her love of her daughter motivated her to help deaf students get opportunities they deserve.

“I started for my daughter, and I continue to stay for my daughter and these kids who need it. They need the support here,” she said.

© 2023 Yakima Herald-Republic
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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