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Study Group Recommends Five Regional Sites for Deaf, Blind Services

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JOHNSTON COUNTY, Iowa -- An expanded statewide system that offers educational services for Iowa's blind and deaf students at five regional sites, including on existing campuses in Vinton and Council Bluffs, is the model a study committee will recommend to the state Board of Regents.

That recommendation comes with an added cost of about $3.2 million beyond what is spent now serving those two populations, though that expected cost would be shared by various entities, including area education agencies, local school districts and state funding through the regents, said Patrick Clancy, superintendent of the School for the Deaf in Council Bluffs and head of the statewide Iowa Educational Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, headquartered in Vinton.

The feasibility and planning study committee, which has about 25 members, selected that model during a meeting Monday after a months-long process that included six committee meetings and three public forums. The regents, which oversee the deaf school and the statewide system for blind students, charged the committee with looking at the effectiveness and efficiency of those services. The recommendation will go to the regents at the board's Dec. 5 meeting, but it's likely the board won't act on it until the February meeting to have more time for consideration, Clancy said.

The statewide system for students who are blind and visually impaired serves about 500 students, while about 1,500 students who are deaf or hard of hearing are served statewide, with about 100 of those students on the Council Bluffs campus of the deaf school. But test scores show students in both populations are not performing as well as they should be, and officials worry the services, especially in rural areas, are not meeting needs.

"We know there's students without access to as much high-quality instruction as what they need," Clancy said. "There's a gap that exists in some locales."

The regional sites model is an effort to correct that, said committee members who supported it, while maintaining the residential school option in Council Bluffs. The five regional centers to serve both populations would be a very different approach from how the services are offered now, Clancy said.

At Monday's meeting, the group narrowed its list to two final choices: one option that used both the Council Bluffs campus and the former Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School's Vinton campus as regional sites along with three more to-be-determined locations; and a second option that used the Council Bluffs campus as a regional site but not the Vinton campus, instead choosing four other locations around the state. The first option, using both campuses, was the preference of 14 committee members, while the second option using the Council Bluffs campus and four other sites, without Vinton, was the preference of nine members.

The group also recommends centralizing the administration of the systems that serve the two populations, a move expected to save about $287,000.

Options discarded by the committee during the process include closing the residential component at the deaf school and centralizing the services for both populations at one single location, either Council Bluffs, Vinton or a new centrally-located site.

The changes will not replace services that already exist for students who are blind or visually impaired or deaf or hard of hearing, committee members said, but are intended to add to what those students receive.

During previous public forums, several speakers said they do not want to see services for the two populations consolidated, and several visitors to Monday's meeting again expressed that opinion.

Sandra Ryan of Ankeny, an Iowa Federation for the Blind representative on the study committee, shared her concerns about consolidating services for the student populations. Each group has "diametrically opposite needs" and requires separate administrators and distinct services, she said.

"Why is merging these services even being considered," she said.

The regional sites would coordinate the planning and location of services to the two populations, Clancy said, but the strategies and teachers used with each population would be distinct and specific to their needs.

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