Las Vegas Sun

February 21, 2019

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Hard to get the word out

Campus for deaf opens with two students, but district won’t help recruiting

The Las Vegas Charter School of the Deaf launched last week. And so far, the entire student body consists of two students, a kindergartner and a first grader.

A tiny enrollment, to be sure, but still twice as many students as the state requires for the school to operate.

It underscores that the value of a charter school isn’t necessarily the quantity of students it serves, but the quality of its instruction and its ability to reach an underserved student population.

“Those two children are getting the best education in this country, and one-on-one instruction,” said Caroline Bass, one of the charter school’s founders and a lead instructor of deaf students at the College of Southern Nevada. “Every kid should be so lucky.”

Nevada’s first dedicated campus for deaf students, the school offers what’s known as bilingual-bicultural education, in which teachers are fluent in American Sign Language, and students learn to read and write in English. It’s the methodology used by many of the nation’s top schools for the deaf.

The charter school will likely receive $2,975 per year in state funding for its kindergartner and $5,051 for its first grader. That’s obviously not enough money to cover the teacher’s salary, never mind pay the rent for a modest classroom at a private day care center.

But the charter school isn’t counting on the state to cover its costs. The organizing committee will tap its savings account — built up with bake sales, private donations and a federal grant — to keep the doors open through June.

Organizers had hoped to start with as many as 30 students in grades K-3 and planned to add higher grades down the road.

But the school has struggled to reach its target market.

The Clark County School District serves about 400 students who are deaf or hearing-impaired, a population that has grown by 65 percent in 10 years.

The district turned down the Las Vegas Charter School of the Deaf’s requests for help identifying deaf students whose families might be interested in an alternative program, according to Bass. She asked the district to accept a stack of prepaid mailers that could be addressed and sent to the students’ families without the district’s releasing to the charter school the students’ contact information.

“All they would have to do is put on the label,” Bass said. “They won’t even do that.”

The district’s reluctance to help the charter school isn’t surprising, said Matt Ladner, vice president of research for the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based think tank.

“School districts are territorial, they look after their own interests,” said Ladner, who recently completed a study of Nevada’s charter school law. “The bottom line is that charter schools have to find a way to reach kids directly. McDonald’s doesn’t let Burger King come in and advertise.”

Ladner believes finding students is a reasonable expectation for charter schools. If they can’t clear that first hurdle, or maintain enrollment after they open their doors, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Charter schools are intended to give parents the opportunity to choose the learning environment that best fits their child’s needs. If it turns out a particular program can’t muster enough support to keep going, or can’t meet the accountability standards, it deserves to fail.

“One of the big problems we face in public education today is the immortality of really bad schools,” Ladner said. “If kids aren’t learning, closing the school can be the best thing that ever happened.”

But when schools flourish, the benefits to the students and the community are substantial.

As for the Las Vegas Charter School of the Deaf, Ladner said, parents will ultimately decide whether it succeeds and draws more students.

Bass believes the school has already proved its value.

“Even if we only had one student,” she said, “it would be worth it.”

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