Special Schools for Deaf Students: Viability Leadership

The issue

fischgrundIt is quite common, at gatherings of administrators of schools for the deaf, to see it stated, and bemoaned, that before P.L. 94-142 approximately 80% of all deaf children were educated in schools for the deaf, and that today, those numbers are at least reversed. So what is to become of those venerable institutions (in the best sense of that word) that have been part of the fabric of American education for nearly 200 years, schools that have produced Deaf Community leaders as well as scientists, artists, educators, authors, historians and researchers? What must these schools do to remain viable for the many deaf students who truly need the specialized language, communication, social and cultural environment that schools for the deaf uniquely provide and foster?

What we know – What we don’t know

Under the auspices of the Burstein Leadership Institute at Gallaudet University and the Conference of Educational Administrators of Schools and Programs for the Deaf (CEASD), the characteristics of thriving schools for the deaf were identified and a self-study instrument and a successful professional development program for school for the deaf leaders based on those characteristics was developed1. So, when it comes to keeping schools for the deaf viable, we actually do have an idea of what works.

Two specific issues became clear in that process; the first is leadership – to assess the vitality and viability of your state or local school for the deaf, look first at the leadership team. The second issue is accountability: viable, thriving schools for the deaf were continuously reflective, set clear goals and benchmarks for achieving those goals, implemented on-going systems of program assessment and regularly reported outcomes to all stakeholders.

To remain viable, schools for the deaf must study demographics, their ‘market,’ carefully. Next year’s pre-school class at a typical school for the deaf will be remarkably diverse, and that diversity will manifest itself in multiple dimensions; early language acquisition opportunities, hearing levels, race and ethnicity, learning styles and differences, use of technology, family status and access to support services, etc. Schools that understood and adapted to the changing and diverse population of deaf students were not only viable but were expanding. Early Intervention (0-3) programs, both home and center based, and programs of support for school age children in regular education settings outside of the school itself were also a common characteristic of these viable and thriving schools for the deaf. These schools for the deaf were seen as a resource for all deaf children in their region or state, not only those on its campus. These schools also had forward-looking, ‘entrepreneurial,’ executive leadership.

We also found that viable, thriving schools for the deaf had clearly described and supported approaches to language and communication development that were understandable to parents and families. A consistent language and communication development program, a focus on literacy, and specialized instruction by highly qualified teachers were the hallmarks of viable and thriving schools. Strong instructional leadership and extensive professional development programs at all levels of the school were common threads in thriving schools for the deaf.


Schools for the deaf are no longer the independent islands of the pre-IDEA era. The standards movement and the required use of the general education curriculum and statewide tests and accountability measures have made it even more imperative that for schools for the deaf to remain viable they must be and be perceived as valued partners within their particular state educational system. At the same time, the unique communicative, linguistic, social and cultural aspects of a school for the deaf must be maintained, not simply to hang on to old ways, but to enrich student learning and personal development.

Schools for the deaf provide a valuable educational setting for many deaf students. Yet many of the schools are failing and in danger of closing. Sustaining a viable and high quality educational environment requires that schools for the deaf change, diversify and expand as institutions — staying the same is not an option. Transformational leadership is necessary for schools for the deaf to remain viable center schools and become educational resource centers.

Finally, and most important, to remain viable, schools for the deaf and their educational leaders must focus on the fundamental mission of teaching and learning.  As Superintendent of the Maryland School for the Deaf, James Tucker, and I wrote in a similar piece nearly a decade ago, our schools must become palaces of learning2.  No less is required, no less can be accepted.

Posted on October 22, 2013 by
Joseph E. Fischgrund, Executive Director, Council on Education of the Deaf

  1. “Characteristics of Thriving Schools for the Deaf,” Burstein Leadership Institute / CEASD School Viability Training, Nashville, TN, October 2009.
  2. Fischgrund, J. and Tucker, J; “Deaf Education Leadership at a Precipice.”  NAD Magazine, Fall, 2004

Further reading

Knoors, H. & Marschark, M. (in press). Teaching deaf learners: Psychological and developmental foundations. New York: Oxford University Press. view details

Schick, B, Skalicky, A., Edwards, T, Kushalnagar, P, Topolski, T. & Patrick, D (2013). School placement and perceived quality of life in youth who are deaf or hard of hearing. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 18, 47-61. view details

Stinson, M.S, & Kluwin, T.N. (2011). Educational consequences of alternative school placements. In M. Marschark & P. Spencer (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of deaf studies, language, and education, volume 1, 2nd edition (pp. 47-62). New York: Oxford University Press. view details

Van Gurp, S. (2001). Self-concept of deaf secondary school students in different educational settings. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 6, 54-69. view details