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Kevin Bonham, Forum News Service, Published September 23 2013

North Dakota School for the Deaf expands its reach to provide services statewide

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. - On-campus enrollment at the North Dakota School for the Deaf is less than two dozen – spanning elementary to middle school grades.

That’s comparable to some of the smallest public schools in the state.

But the services it provides reach thousands of North Dakotans through an outreach program that has been expanding rapidly over the past four years.

Even the facility’s name has grown – it’s now North Dakota School for the Deaf/Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing – to better reflect the broadening scope of its programs and services.

The name officially changed in 2012, but the process began in 2009, when the North Dakota Legislature authorized the school to provide services to deaf and hard of hearing residents throughout the state.

“We no longer just provide education services for children here on campus,” said Lilia Bakken, interim superintendent. “We now provide services statewide for people of all ages. We want people to know that they can be tapping into our adult services now, as well as services for newborn babies.”

As part of the annual International Week of the Deaf this week, the school is hosting a two-day workshop Wednesday and Thursday. The event, Communication Barriers and Treatment Vulnerabilities in the Deaf Population, features Dr. Michael Harvey, former adjunct faculty member at Boston University and Gallaudet University, who provides training and consultation on deafness/hearing loss and mental health issues in the deaf community.

The Resource Center currently has outreach offices and staff members, including teachers, in six North Dakota cities: Devils Lake, Grand Forks, Fargo, Minot, Bismarck and Rolla.

“As a Resource Center on Deafness, we address issues that are specific to the field of education of individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, families and agencies, those who give them support in any way,” said Carol Lybeck, resource center coordinator.

Here is a list of services now offered through NDSD/RCDHH:

- Adult assistance. The fastest-growing group of clients consists of seniors who are hard of hearing, late-deafened – people who had normal hearing as youths and adults, but lost their hearing later in life – or seniors with some hearing loss. Program staff members provide counseling and training on equipment, such as captioned phones, phones with amplifiers or flashing lights that help during emergencies and more.

- Parent-infant counseling. The program offers consultations at schools around the state for families with preschool-age children who have hearing impairments.

- American Sign Language. Sign language courses are offered around the state via interactive television. The school also partners with Lake Region State College in Devils Lake, which offers the only American Sign Language two-year associate degree in the state.

- Interpreter services.

School snapshot

NDSD, which opened in 1890, is not the same school it was a century or even a decade or two ago.

For one, the enrollment has been declining. It peaked at 140 in the late 1930s. Fifteen years ago, it was about 50. Three years ago, when the high school closed, K-12 enrollment was 24.

This fall, 14 students attend elementary and grade school classes at NDSD. Another six attend school at Devils Lake High School.

The high school students, who live in NDSD dormitory facilities, walk to and from the high school, which is adjacent to the campus. NDSD staff provides interpretation services, as well as a teacher at the high school to assist deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

The enrollment decline is similar to other small, rural schools around North Dakota, according to Bakken. However, it’s not just the result of declining rural population.

“One of the reasons is that parents are choosing to keep their children at home ... ” Bakken said. “Because this is a residential program, many parents feel that they don’t want to send their children away.”

When they’re not in class, students are involved in extracurricular programs on campus.

“We have a residential program here because our kids, when they come here, they can be really immersed in the community, where there is sign language,” said Robert Ferguson, director of student services at NDSD.

Ferguson grew up in Texas and attended the Texas School for the Deaf until the sixth grade, when he started mainstreaming in public schools. Both of his parents, who are deaf, graduated from the Colorado School for the Deaf.

“I learned to use resources by myself, in order to do well in the mainstream, ” he said.

After high school, he enrolled in Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. While there, he met Holly Cofer, a deaf student who graduated from NDSD. Cofer’s father, Rocklyn Cofer, was NDSD superintendent from 1998 to 2005.

Ferguson and Cofer moved from the Washington area to Devils Lake, where they married. Since coming to North Dakota, he has earned degrees from Lake Region State College and the University of North Dakota.

Holly Ferguson is a paraprofessional at NDSD, helping to provide one-on-one assistance to students. They have two deaf sons, Dashiel (Dash), who is in second grade, and Riordan (Rio), who is in kindergarten at the school.

It’s quite common, according to Bakken, for deaf school graduates to later return to teach, or to go to other deaf schools around the nation.

Bakken and Ferguson agree there’s a reason for that.

“As deaf people, we want to empower deaf children,” Ferguson said. “We want them to look up to us and try to set some good goals for themselves. We want them to become successful in their lives. And, as deaf people who work here, we can be their role models.”