The student body is deaf and diverse. The school’s leadership is neither.

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The student body is deaf and diverse. The school’s leadership is neither.

Student protests over the hiring of a white hearing superintendent have sparked a school for the deaf that serves mostly black and Hispanic students in the Atlanta area, and have focused on whether school leaders should protect their students’ identities. should reflect better.

The Atlanta Area School for the Deaf, operated by the Georgia Department of Education, is one of two public schools for the deaf in Georgia and serves approximately 180 students from kindergarten through 12th grade, about 80 percent of whom are Black and Hispanic.

The students protested the hiring, accusing the school and education department of racism and disability-based discrimination against the deaf community known as Audism. He noted that the school’s top leadership did not include people of color or deaf people.

Two weeks later, the superintendent, Lisa Buckner, who has 22 years of experience as a teacher and administrator for deaf students and who had most recently worked in the Department of Education, resigned. The school has appointed an interim superintendent, who is also a white-listed woman, and is now seeking a permanent replacement.

The protests echoed the 1988 student uprising at Gallaudet University, a federally chartered private school for the deaf in Washington. In the protest, which was seen as a historic moment for deaf people, students successfully pushed for the first deaf president of the university and drew attention to the long-standing challenges facing deaf people.

Activism since then, including a controversy in which two Gallaudet executives resigned in 2020, while saying the school discriminated against black deaf people in hiring and promotion, exacerbated both race and disability. Have given. Three decades after the original Gallaudet protest, many in the deaf community say they are still fighting similar battles.

Protests erupted in Atlanta after Ms Buckner was hired in September. He replaced the former superintendent, John Serrano, who resigned in May after four years serving as the school’s first deaf Latino leader.

The Atlanta school said it interviewed every applicant who met the minimum qualifications for the position. “It stands in opposition to autism and other forms of prejudice,” said Meghan Frick, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Education. He described Ms Buckner as “an educational leader” who was “proficient” in American Sign Language, or ASL.

But current and former staff members say deaf employees and people of color were ignored for promotion, and both staff and students have complained that Ms. Buckner’s knowledge of ASL was poor. In the original job posting, sign language fluency was listed as a preferred, not required, skill.

According to 18-year-old Trinity Arriola, a protest leader, many student protesters felt that the new superintendent did not understand and let them down.

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“It looks like we are going backwards,” said Ms. Arriola, a senior and president of the Latino Students Union. “It’s like we’re going back to a time where deaf people were considered limited and disabled.”

The school’s top leadership consists of white-listed women who fill the roles of superintendent and assistant principal. According to data from the Department of Education, in the 2020-21 school year, 79 percent of teachers were white and 60 percent of teachers were hearing. Ms Buckner declined to answer questions about her decision to resign or complaints from students and staff.

Since May, at least 12 other employees have left the school. According to Emily Friedberg, 50, a former agriculture teacher who is white and deaf, many of the dropouts were deaf, people of color, or both.

After 12 years working at the school, she said, she was prompted to leave in June — months before she found out who the new superintendent was — because of what she described as a “hostile” environment run by the White Hearing leadership. was that she had “bullyed deaf staff and made inappropriate comments about students of color.

Ms Frick said the education department was not aware of such incidents at the school. He said officials encouraged anyone with concerns to contact the education department’s leadership.

Although the Gallaudet protests paved the way for new education and employment opportunities for the deaf, schools for the deaf are still mostly led by hearing people and rarely led by deaf people of color.

According to Tanny Holmes Hlibok, professor of deaf studies at Gallaudet, 46 of the 73 school leadership positions for 71 statewide K-12 schools for the deaf across the country are held for hearing people. Of the 27 deaf school leaders – a number he has more than doubled from seven years ago – three are people of color.

Mounting research shows that students do better in school if they have role models that reflect their background.

“I have noticed that when I talk to deaf children at school without a deaf leader and ask them what they want to be when they grow up, they often limit themselves,” said Professor Hlibok. When I ask them if they want to be a teacher or a lawyer or a nurse, they say they can’t because that job is for the listener.”

A 2019 report from the National Deaf Center found that 44.8 percent of black deaf people and 43.6 percent of deaf Native American people are in the labor force, compared to 59 percent of white deaf people.

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Along with a lack of role models, many deaf students, especially deaf students of color, are not adequately prepared for college due to a lack of early language support services and certified educational interpreters in public schools, says Lauren E. Sims, interim chief bilingual officer at Gallaudet.

Black Deaf students can pursue bachelor’s, master’s or Ph.D. Receive. According to another 2019 report from the National Center for the Deaf, degrees at nearly half the rate of black hearing students and half the rate of white deaf students.

According to a senior, 19-year-old Katrina Callaway, the lack of so many people of color on the Atlanta school staff has made many students feel less comfortable there. She said, in the past, she and her friends have confided in teachers that they can tell about their problems, home life, and friends, but now “students don’t feel like there’s someone they can open up to,” she said. he said.

“When I try to open up to someone who doesn’t have similar experiences,” she said, “I’m not always sure if I can trust them, and I feel a lot of self-doubt. ” She said that sometimes it seemed that white staff treated students differently based on their skin color.

More broadly, with activists in recent years complaining about the “whiteness of disability,” or how much it is viewed through a white lens, statistics show that black people are more likely to have a disability.

For example, white appears in media portrayals of people with disabilities and the leadership of disability organizations, according to Willissa Thompson, a black disabilities activist who created the hashtag #DisabilitySoWhite on Twitter to draw attention to the issue.

Recently, Netflix’s “Deaf You” reality series focused on Gallaudet college students was criticized for its lack of deaf women of color, even though less than half of the school’s students were white at the time.

Those broader issues raised the stakes in places like the Atlanta School.

Ms Frick said the Georgia Department of Education is working to create leadership pathways for teachers and school staff.

Serrano, the previous superintendent, declined to comment on his experience with the Department of Education, but he wrote in an email that he expects the department to conduct an equitable and inclusive search for the next superintendent.

“It is my firm belief that students want and need a leader who ‘looks like them’ and who shares their experiences as deaf and hard of hearing individuals,” he wrote.

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