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Just one week into the new school year, Jill Radford has resigned as principal of Jean Massieu School of the Deaf in Millcreek, citing differences with the superintendent of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind.
"If I hope to exact real and measurable change, I simply cannot continue to work for a superintendent who so blatantly demoralizes the efforts, dedication and passion of the faculty and staff at JMS," Radford wrote in a letter after she announced her resignation Thursday evening at a USDB Advisory Council meeting. "I will continue to fight as a deaf adult for the rights and needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing children all across this great state."
Radford has been principal of the school for three years. Her parting blasts are the latest aimed at Superintendent Steve Noyce by deaf education advocates who say he has favored USDB's listening-and-spoken-language (LSL) program at the expense of the American Sign Language (ASL) program. Noyce, who is starting his third year as superintendent, insists the programs have been supported equally. Both have been hit with budget cuts following a tight year.
Noyce has the backing of the state Board of Education, which formed a task force earlier this year to review complaints at USDB and examine ways to strengthen the schools.
"The board has made the decision that, right now, he is going to serve as superintendent of USDB," said state board member Leslie Castle, who also serves on the USDB Advisory Council. "This controversy that Steve Noyce has been dealing with has been going on for years. It did not start with Steve Noyce and it will not end with Steve Noyce, whenever Steve Noyce leaves."
The listening-and-spoken language program has become increasingly popular in recent years as technology for digital hearing aids and cochlear implants has improved. About 70 percent of parents choose the LSL track for their deaf and hard-of-hearing students before they enter preschool. Students learn to listen and speak and most are able to return to their neighborhood schools by third grade.
In the ASL/English program, students learn to sign and to read and write in English. Their teachers use sign language to teach the curriculum. Proponents of this program say it fosters a sense of belonging to the deaf community and allows students to learn in a visual language that is more readily accessible to them. In her letter, Radford, who is deaf, refers to ASL as the "natural language" of deaf people.
Ultimately, parents make the choice of which program is best for their children.
But Radford worries parents are choosing the LSL program regardless of their children's abilities. Students who do not learn to listen and speak as readily as their parents had hoped are then sent to the ASL program as a fallback.
"Under the current educational structure, 'failed' students are given a second track through which to learn, but years of development are lost in the process," Radford wrote in her letter. "As a result of these lost years, these improperly served students of Schools of the Deaf are forced into a game of continuous 'catch-up.' The culture of 'failure' is thusly perpetuated."
Noyce said few students are moved from the LSL to ASL program, but it does happen.
The timing of Radford's departure leaves USDB searching for a replacement in the second week of school. Earlier this week, JMS, which has 88 students, celebrated the debut of a new playground after volunteers removed graffiti days before the start of school.
Trena Roueche, who recently was named associate superintendent of the schools for the deaf, will step in at JMS as USDB conducts a national search.
Castle said she was "disheartened" by the timing and manner of Radford's resignation.
"It did not serve the students of JMS, and it was all done with a finger pointed at Steve Noyce, who was guilty of none of those things," Castle said Friday. "I found that to be unprofessional, at best."
Also on Thursday, the advisory council discussed troubling test scores at JMS. Results from state exams show that students there are performing below their peers both in other ASL programs and in the LSL program, Noyce said. The lower test scores include students who have always been taught in an ASL setting.
"It really shouldn't be a reflection on the teachers or JMS. We need to find out why the scores are lower and know what we can do to fix that," Noyce said. "The measure of success for all of our students is how well they can read and write and use math. Our role as educators, frankly, is to teach them to read and write. Whether they speak or use sign language is not the important part."
Jake Dietz, a father of two deaf children in preschool at JMS, said he is sad to see Radford go. He and his wife are considering a move to Washington, California or Colorado, where they believe state schools are more supportive of education in ASL.
"It's one less advocate that we have in the education system fighting for our kids," he said of Radford. "I also understand she's been fighting an uphill battle for the last couple of years and it's hard to do that."
About the schools
The Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind serve children statewide from infancy through high school. It includes an Ogden campus, self-contained classrooms in district schools, Jean Massieu School of the Deaf and itinerant services to rural areas. Enrollment as of May:
Deaf or hearing-impaired • 1,050
Blind or visually impaired • 681
Deaf-blind • 105