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In this episode of CTU Speaks!, Andrea and Jim talk with Kelsey Cavanaugh, an American Sign Language interpreter for CPS, and Christa Valencia, a middle-school teacher of the deaf. They discuss the many hurdles that deaf students confront at CPS — from getting placed in a school in the first place to the inequities they experience once they get there. They also talk about some potential solutions to these problems going forward.

And as always, please share your thoughts and questions with the CTU Speaks! team by emailing ctuspeaks@ctulocal1.org or calling 312-467-8888.

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Andrea: Welcome to this episode of CTU Speaks!, “Deaf barriers at CPS.”

[Theme music]

Andrea: I am your co-host Andrea Parker, and I’m joined with…

Jim: Jim Staros. How you doing there, Ms. Parker? Or wait, I should say Dr. Parker!

Andrea: Yes. Dr. Parker, I’m like you. We got two doctors in the building.

Jim: Double doctors in the house.

Andrea: Double doctors, I like that.

Jim: Hopefully that makes the show run smoother.

Andrea: It better. You know, we’re able to ascertain things, analyze data, even better.

Jim: Look at that, and we use big words and everything. So how have you been? We haven’t been up in the show for a long time.

Andrea: I know. There’s always something going on, always something going on. And every time it’s time to a podcast, something else comes up, and we just don’t get to but I think we’re gonna be back in business now, Jim.

Jim: I hope so. I know we’re starting to talk about doing a series of episodes on all these inequities that are in CPS, and how they’re really underfunding the people who need these services the most.

Andrea: And the irony is we get all this money from federal COVID relief funding — more than $1 billion, almost $2 billion. With that, hopefully these inequities can be eliminated.

Jim: Well, they should be eliminated. I mean, they are “eliminating jobs” downtown. We got everybody quitting down there. CPS CEO Janice Jackson is quitting, Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade is quitting [and Chief Operating Officer Arne Rivera too].

Andrea: How does the CEO quit after getting a $40,000 raise? There’s something going on.

Jim: I don’t know. I worry about that. Because in any other company in the world, if the top three people resign within a week or so of each other, that’s a problem. They know something’s coming down, and it’s not a good thing.

Andrea: Not a good thing? You don’t think it’s because they’re wanting to spend more time with their families and just find better opportunities?

Jim: I find that unlikely. Maybe it is. Maybe it is, Ms. Parker, your optimism—

Andrea: It’s Dr. Parker.

Jim: I’m sorry, Dr. Parker. Doc.

Andrea: Yeah, that’s what my son calls me now. He calls me doc. I said, okay well, not going to argue with you there.

Jim: Nice. Ok, well, so we’ve got some great guests today. They work with the Deaf and hard-of-hearing population in CPS. It’s a population that I did not know was that underserved, I had no idea about this, until I started talking to some of the people that work with them, and I was at a loss. I was like damn.

Andrea: Then when you hear about it, you like, wow, this can’t be happening, not in the third-largest school district in the country!

Jim: I mean, there’s some easy solutions to these problems that apparently nobody seems to care about that much, at least nobody that’s in power at CPS. Hopefully, when we hear these guys, we’re going to find out about some of these issues, hear about some solutions, and maybe there’s something we can do going forward. They’re going to tell us about some of the issues and concerns there are with the Deaf and hard-of-hearing population in Chicago Public Schools and some of the potential solutions to these problems.

[Musical break]

Jim: We are here with two wonderful guests. Kelsey Kavanaugh, an American Sign Language interpreter, and Christa Valencia, a middle-school teacher of the Deaf. How are you guys doing today?

Christa: Good, thank you so much for having us, Jim and Andrea.

Andrea: Yes, thank you all so much for being on the show. I think our listeners really would love just to hear about what you all do and the issues that we’re having with CPS in reference to our deaf students and our hard-of-hearing students. So maybe you can start off with giving us some basic vocabulary, demographics, all the context that we need to understand the issue better. For example, how many deaf students do we have in CPS?

Kelsey: Any number that I give you right now is going to be an extreme guess. I think that speaks to a bit of an issue in and of itself. I’ve been providing services for deaf and hard-of-hearing students in CPS for 11 years as an American Sign Language interpreter. I go into the classroom with the student, and I facilitate communication between deaf and hard-of-hearing students and then their hearing teachers and their hearing peers. And I’ve been doing that for 11 years in CPS, and I have no idea about any of these numbers.

And Christa and I actually work with the same population of students, and we’ve never met before. So we don’t really get time to collaborate with each other across the district, which would be really helpful given the very specific skill set that we that we all possess for this as well as a very specific group of students that we work with. But if I had to ballpark it, I would say it’s at least a couple hundred students, maybe between 200 and 300.

I think we have four high schools that have programs, and then we have five or six elementary schools that have programs specifically for Deaf and hard-of-hearing students. But then we also have students throughout the district that would be in their neighborhood schools with maybe itinerant teacher services, and interpreter services in their schools.

Jim: Wow, we have all these trainings and [professional development] for regular ed teachers throughout the district, and you guys are saying you never have time to collaborate? It seems like it would be even more critical on an issue like this that is highly specific to certain teachers.

Kelsey: Right? And I’m at a school where I’m very lucky that I work with a large team of people. So we have three teachers of the Deaf at my school, we have seven ASL interpreters, several other Deaf staff members that work with our students. So I have that time to collaborate with people. But there are lots of other interpreters and teachers of the Deaf that are the only one at their school, and they don’t get that opportunity.

Andrea: So how many teachers are there that serve as this community of students?

Christa: That’s another good estimate question. Like Kelsey was saying, we have about four or five high schools with cluster programs and about six elementary schools with cluster programs. And that really just depends on the number of students they have at each program. So my school is an elementary K-through-8th grade school, and we have three teachers for that entire population. Deafness is considered a low-incidence disability. So compared to other reasons why a student may have an IEP [Individualized Education Plan], deafness is one of the least common. Lots of people do have hearing loss, but to have a hearing loss that impacts your education from a young age is pretty rare. To be born Deaf, also pretty rare. However, most individuals who are born deaf are born to hearing parents. And in that instance, there’s a lot of grieving and unknowing that goes on, which can lead to a lot of confusion. And it can definitely impact the direction of that child’s life, so low incidence, meaning not a lot of Deaf students compared to their hearing peers.

Andrea: And I see how you say that most Deaf students are born to hearing families. So that means that most families don’t sign, and a lot of our students receive a great deal of communication in sign language in their schools. So how does this lack of teachers and programming impact the family communication with students?

Christa: Wow, yeah, that’s a big question. Because you’re really touching on the heart of a lot of our issues here, and that lies in that communication. Because deafness does create a barrier to communicating within the hearing world. Hearing families who happen upon deafness in their children have a lot to learn and unlearn about Deaf culture and how deafness can impact a person’s development.

As a Deaf and hard-of-hearing teacher, I spent a lot of time learning how exactly deafness impacts language acquisition and use for children, and how that language acquisition and use can impact their social emotional learning, their socialization, their behavior. And all of this took years to learn, and lots of immersion in Deaf culture. And these are things that a lot of parents don’t have the time or resources to learn.

It is kind of a knee-jerk reaction, I think, of any human of any parent to protect that child and try to give them everything you can to make them successful. Typically, those hearing parents, the first person that they talk to about their child’s hearing loss is a doctor or an audiologist. And doctors and audiologists love to solve problems and fix things. And so it is often the case that the doctors and the audiologists will push a family toward what we call “oralism” or an oral route. And that focuses a lot on speech and listening. So giving a child lots of speech, and language therapy, a lot of auditory rehabilitation.

This is where children are given cochlear implants at a very young age. That is a surgery that is irreversible, and it places a device inside of a student’s head that bypasses the hearing organs that are inside of your ear and goes straight to the brain.

These are all strategies to set the child up for success in a hearing world where written and spoken English are the main languages that the student will be used to be evaluated on and communicated with. However, Deaf children — in fact, all children — benefit from the use of sign language. And I think maybe Kelsey, if you want to speak more about this part,

Kelsey: Yeah, so I work in a high school, and because this approach of oralism is pushed early on in life for children, it works. For some students, it’s very successful for some students. There are students that are deaf or hard of hearing out there that go through this oral approach of education and can totally integrate with the hearing world. There’s still, obviously, some deficits and some setbacks, but it works for some people.

But ASL is part of a larger culture, that is deaf culture, and as a high-school sign language interpreter, I see sometimes kids that come to us that have only been trained orally, and they are missing that piece. And they’re in between two worlds then. So they’re living in this hearing world, because that’s how they’ve been trained to speak and to use the hearing that they are able to use, but then they come to school where I work, and they see this rich culture of students that are using sign language, and we have adults at my school that use sign language, and they don’t feel like they’re a part of that. So they’re kind of in between two worlds.

Jim: It sounds like a lot or at least part of what you do is that you’re almost counselors for the parents for the families because being deaf impacts the family, not just the student itself. What you’re talking about is trying to educate these families into this “oralistic” approach to it is okay, but that’s not the only way to do it, maybe not even the best way to do it. And to try to convince them otherwise, as Christa said earlier, our first instinct as parents is to protect our kids. And if there’s a surgery that can “fix it,” well, let’s just do that, let’s fix it. But it doesn’t necessarily need to be fixed, we need to figure out strategies to make us successful.

Christa: Absolutely. That false dichotomy can lead to an oralist versus total communication rift there, but it doesn’t need to be that way. We can offer students a wide range of communication modalities and expose them to sign language without hindering their English language acquisition and use. In fact, giving them that sign-language support can help them build their English language acquisition.

So there really is no downside to teaching American Sign Language from the beginning. However, it is a challenge if you don’t know the language and if you have no connection to Deaf culture, the Deaf community, it can be really intimidating to learn. And, I know a lot of parents are working really hard and trying to provide for their families. So there’s not a lot of time to learn an entire language on the side. So yes, as you’re saying, as a teacher, it is personally my role to try to bridge that gap.

So, I work at a school that has previously been labeled an oral school, and it was an oral school when I accepted the job there. But throughout the years that I’ve been working there, I have been working really hard to bring Deaf culture awareness to my school community and also to my students, who have been going through an oral program and didn’t really have an opportunity to dissect and understand their Deaf identity, and how that will relate to who they are as an adult. And as a person who has very specific needs.

Jim: The way I came to this issue is I was talking to another of your colleagues in my capacity as a CTU field rep about something totally different. And they said that there are no substitutes for when the sign language interpreters are absent. And, you know, at first it went over my head, I’m like, okay, everybody has trouble getting subs, whatever. And then, you know, it took me a minute to get it — like it frequently does. Andrea will tell you that. But Christa’s talking so much about how we’ve got to integrate this into the whole classroom community, but then if there’s nobody there to do the job, how can that possibly work for these kids? So the kids are sitting there waiting for this whole communication approach that we’ve been working on for however long since we’ve been there, and there are no substitutes for this. And this is what first got me “woke” to this particular issue, and I didn’t even know it was an issue to be “woke” to, and now I’m all mad.

How are students placed in these programs? We said there’s only a few across the city. But obviously, Deaf students across the city aren’t concentrated in certain neighborhoods. So how do we place kids in programs that will be most effective for them?

Kelsey: Yeah, so to clarify the issue of subs for sign-language interpreters and the impact that that has on our students, if you think about a teacher being absent, like just a regular classroom teacher being absent, if you can’t find a sub, the school administration is going to find a place for those kids to go, and they’re still able to freely communicate with their peers and to communicate with whoever the substitute is. But when a sign language interpreter is absent, class goes on, and it goes on whether or not there’s a substitute there for us. And when that happens, our students are in a classroom with no ability to communicate with anybody, they’ve completely lost the ability to learn for that class period, or sometimes the entire day, if it’s an elementary school where there’s just one interpreter that’s with them all day. It’s tough.

I think we have five substitute sign-language interpreters for the whole district. As an interpreter, you can either work in education or in freelance, and many do both. Freelance means working out in the community, such as the sign language interpreters on all the press conferences. Now, many of the people that are substitutes for CPS are also freelance interpreters. So if we don’t let them know in advance that we’re going to be absent, they’ve taken another job already.

So those five interpreters that we have, they’re not available full time, I think we only have one sub that’s available full time, and she’s a retired teacher. We have tried to get retired interpreters to be able to serve and found out that it is not legal to do that because you’re not allowed to “double dip” so to speak, so you can’t retire and then come back and sub, which would be awesome, because then there would be people that would be available. But that’s an issue for another day.

As far as placement is concerned, the best I can tell is that it’s based on their location where they live. We have several schools on the South Side, the school that I work at is in the West Loop and centrally located, there are schools on the North Side. And so if the students live in the north, they go to the school on the North Side, if they live south, they could go to the school on the South Side. And for me as an interpreter, the problem with that is that we end up with students in the same classes that have very different language needs.

So as an interpreter, I can use American Sign Language, which is a unique, certified foreign language that has its own syntax and grammar and does not really correlate to English, or I can use a more manually coded English sign language. Some work better for some students. But what happens is, I will end up with a class of students in front of me that are a handful of both. And then what do I do? I have to just kind of find a middle ground, and nobody’s really getting exactly what they need. And so instead of placing students based on those needs, it seems to me they’re being placed largely on where they live, which makes it difficult as an interpreter for me. And maybe Christa can speak to the difficulties of that, as a teacher.

Christa: As a teacher, I’m part of the IEP team for students. And it is the IEP team that determines placement of a student based on their needs. That’s supposed to be the way the system works. However, for Deaf and hard-of-hearing students, it is very tricky to figure out what exactly their needs are. Because so much of school is language-based, so much of relating to other people is language-based, and that’s the deficit area for our students. So we try to place students based on their academic skills and needs, but also their language, modality and language needs.

And it seems like in the past, there was some confusion or some conflating the two. I had a student in the past who was really intellectually high functioning, but parents are Deaf, he’s Deaf, so his English language was considered to be low. He was a “low” reader and writer, but incredibly smart kid. He exhibited a lot of behavior issues, because he was at an oral school, and he signs at home, and he needed that communication at school as well. And so he would become very frustrated, because he was misunderstanding or being misunderstood. And so it was determined by the IEP team that he needed to go to a school with more signing people. So we sent him there.

And that school, at his next IEP meeting, said, “Why did you send him here? He’s too smart to be at this school with the signing students.” And that broke my heart because there are certainly a lot of Deaf individuals who sign, who do not speak English, who are incredibly smart and very talented. So we try to place students at schools based on what they need academically and what language would best suit them.

In the past, we’ve had a lot of schools labeled specifically oral schools, and they say we do not allow ASL here. My school was one of those until pretty recently. We had changed hands, we had a different manager of the Deaf and hard-of-hearing program district wide a couple of years ago, and she was really pushing for more of a total communication approach at all the schools. She’s no longer our manager, which is kind of a shame. I do miss her a lot. But…

Kelsey: In fact, we don’t have a manager and haven’t for almost a over a year now.

Andrea: Oh wow. Basically what I’m hearing is that we place students based on geographic location rather than their academic areas, but we also have to consider that for a lot of parents, it’s hard for them to travel to a lot of locations, and so there may be a program that’s suitable for them, but it may be like 20 miles away. So this is why it’s even more important to make sure that we have resources in every area of the school district to meet the varying needs of our Deaf and hard-of-hearing students. It shouldn’t be that I have a high-functioning or high-learning or high-achievement Deaf student, but they can only go somewhere on the North Side. And on the South Side, that’s not fair, they should be able to have teachers to meet their academic needs in every area.

They don’t have to travel or have to be bused so far, just like students who are not deaf or hard of hearing, who feel they have to go to Walter Payton or Whitney Young or Northside College Prep to go to a so-called decent school. There should be decent academic schools in every area. And so this is a funding issue for all types of students. You should be able to have good schools in every neighborhood to meet the various needs of our students, because we have over 300,000 students in the school district. And we know that if we are serving with 300,000 students, they are going to have varying needs, and every region should have enough services to accommodate all those students.

Christa: Absolutely. And while we’re talking about high schools, I teach middle school, and my eighth graders are transitioning to high school, and I write a transition plan and help them determine what they want to do after high school and help them apply for high schools. Now I have my own feelings about the high school application process. But for my Deaf students, of course, it’s even trickier because there are only five high schools in CPS that have DHH cluster programs, so they’re kind of stuck.

Either they’re going to walk away from a cluster program, like they’ve had K-8 and do school entirely differently for high school, or they have to choose one of those five schools. I had a parent this year who was really feeling limited in her choice of school because she knew she wanted her daughter to have all of the supports that are in her IEP, but she also knew that a majority of high schools in CPS could not provide those services and supports.

Andrea: And it’s sad to hear that because we are the third-largest school district in the nation, not in Illinois, not in the Midwest, but in the nation, and so you would think that we would promote [ASL] more, to help high-school students go to college and be able to learn different languages, not just Spanish, French, but also ASL. So I’m just not seeing a lot of promotion of that, I’m not seeing even in high schools a course or an elective. And so I just feel there needs to be more, if we know that these are the needs of the students, we should look at it and analyze the data — because we like to analyze data at CPS — look at the student-needs data and see what type of educators we need and promote that.

Kelsey: To my knowledge, and I could be wrong about this, there’s only one high school that offers American Sign Language as a foreign language credit. It’s a school that happens to have a Deaf and hard-of-hearing program, and that’s part of the reason why it’s offered. And it’s wonderful because then we have hearing students within that school who can communicate with the Deaf students and vice versa. And it makes for a nice culture there and a lot less isolation. But it would be nice if that was something that was offered as a course at some of the other schools.

Jim: I want to go back to something one of you said a minute ago about ASL not being allowed at your school. Not only is it not offered, it’s not allowed?! Can you elaborate on that? This one’s new on me too.

Christa: I think this is an idea born out of an antiquated understanding of language acquisition. There is no research to suggest that learning multiple languages will hinder your like English language acquisition. However, that idea was taught as part of your teacher preparation for Deaf and hard-of-hearing students. And that’s led to an entire school of thought called oralism.

And that thought is that we should focus on speech production and articulation. And all of that is very beneficial to many students, and it does take a lot of time. It is completely appropriate support for some students, but for some reason, it was believed that signing, in conjunction with learning speech and listening, would be a “distraction” or a “deterrent” to speaking English.

Kelsey: In some capacities, you still see it today, and it always blows my mind that it’s very popular for hearing babies to learn sign language, like with the whole Baby Einstein series. And the reason for that is because children can communicate with their hands physically before they’re able to form words verbally, so there are hearing parents teaching their hearing children these words.

Meanwhile, there’s this theory out there that teaching ASL to the children who actually need it is going to be detrimental somehow to their language development and acquisition. And so this whole issue starts when these children are very young. And it’s a bigger issue than just education.

Christa: Absolutely. And it leads to something called “language deprivation,” which is huge. And that is a cause for a lot of issues with behavior and relating to others. It is a disservice to children. And we could have a whole other podcast about language…

Andrea: Yeah, we should. You all have stated so many things—about the lack of funding, the lack of enough teachers, the lack of schools to serve as Deaf and hard-of-hearing students, and the negative impact that it has on them as well as their families. So what can we do to fix this? How can we remedy this? And by “we,” I’m thinking of the CTU, of individual teachers, of parents, of community members. What can be done to remedy this problem?

Kelsey: I think that the number one thing it really boils down to is staffing. And I know that we hear about the need for adequate staffing at CPS all the time. But you know, you’re talking about a system that’s trying to pigeonhole kids — you’re going to learn orally, you’re going to learn with sign language.

And if we could provide all of the services that they need — as is written in their IEP by a team of people who have assessed what’s best for them — then we would be sending more sign-language interpreters, more teachers of the Deaf, more social workers, more audiology services, more speech and language pathology services, there would be this whole encompassing education that our kids aren’t getting right now, because, like I said, they are being pigeonholed into, “You’re gonna learn this way, and you’re gonna learn this way,” even when we know that the best approach is to learn all the ways, right?

Christa: Absolutely. Along with staffing, collaboration among everyone involved in this child’s life from the point that they are identified as Deaf or having a hearing loss. That should doctors, psychologists, audiologists, parents, and neighborhood teachers, but teachers usually aren’t included until that child’s enrolled in school.

However, a teacher of the deaf would be the one to provide that social emotional piece and that connection to Deaf culture. Additionally, we all as a society could do a little bit more to connect to Deaf culture and the Deaf community — to unlearn our own ableism and our own ideas of how Deaf people experience our world, and just work to relieve some of those barriers for them.

Jim: I don’t know if you’ve heard in the news, but CPS has been generously given by our federal government $1.8 billion.

Andrea: Wow, a lot of money.

Jim: That buys Andrea a lot of earrings. So CPS always wants to claim they don’t have money to do this and they can’t afford to do that. Well, they can’t claim that anymore. That’s a lot of money even for CPS. What would be most effective use of this money and funding, if you could control it? How could we be using it to help the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community?

Kelsey: It’s a lot of money to think about.

Jim: You don’t have to use all of it, just use $1 billion of it!

Kelsey: I think one of the things that I’ve always really wished for our students is having Deaf mentors. So we talked at the beginning about how there’s sometimes some barriers to language at home for a variety of different reasons. So it’s really important for students to see an adult who is like them and who is successful, that they have a role model, they have someone to guide them, like yes, I can do this, I am Deaf and I communicate differently than other people, but there are people like me out there who are successful. To have that for Deaf or hard-of-hearing students — because, like Christa said, most Deaf students are born to hearing families, and they don’t often see that that piece —so to be able to hire Deaf role models to come in and work with the students or be with them. In the community, having more community events and access to that sort of mentorship would be amazing for a lot of our students.

Christa: Absolutely. I agree. Staffing is huge. I would love to see more counselors for our students with hearing loss because the identity piece is so huge for them. I know at the middle-school level, middle schoolers are struggling with their identity in the first place, right? And I have so many students who are rejecting their hearing aids or refusing to sign because they’re afraid that it’s going to make them look different and make them a target for bullying.

And so I would love to see more counselors to help smooth that over and create a school culture that’s accepting and loving of our Deaf students. And then, if we could get any Deaf individuals in any positions at these schools, it would be fantastic — because they’re out there and they’re looking for jobs, and they can be clerks, and they can be teachers and SECAs [Special Education Classroom Assistant] and anything that you can think of, they can do it, and I don’t know any Deaf adults working in CPS.

Kelsey: There are a few, we have a clerk and a security guard at my school, but there aren’t a lot in CPS. There are a few SECAs that I’m aware of as well. But there could be more, and that speaks to the piece of having role models as well, because then you have students who are seeing adults like them, working in the school, being around them, being a role model for them. “I can do that too,” you know, that’s important to have staff who know what our students are experiencing and who went through those things as well.

Andrea: Thank you so much, you’ll want to be at the next school board meeting and every school board meeting after that, because that those are some excellent ideas. And I would hate for you all to share these ideas in vain; they need to be carried out. I never thought about CPS having employees who are Deaf, but I think that would be very beneficial to students. And after school clubs or regional clubs for Deaf students where they can connect more with one another. But I just think these are some great ideas. And I hate that these students are not getting the full comprehensive services that they need. So thank you for this. And I hope that you all continue to advocate, and hopefully we can do a follow-up show to see if there has been any change. And I hope so! Because we are a CTU podcast, and we definitely bring about change. So people who are going to hear this are going to be upset and they’re going to want to fight!

Jim: And before you go, I have to say that I found out right before the show that Kelsey is a listener of CTU Speaks!

Kelsey: I am!

Jim: That is great. So we’ve got one of our fans out there on the show contributing to the show. This is what we’re looking for. For people out there listening, if you’ve got an issue, you’ve got something that you want to talk about on the show, please contact us and let us know. And you can be just like Kelsey, and be on our program!

Andrea: That’s right. So thank you, Kelsey and Christa, for coming on. We really appreciate you, and I know that this issue will go out to the masses. And I know that we’re going to be better advocates for our Deaf and hard-of-hearing students because that’s what we’re here for. We’re here to serve all of our students, and all of our students are worthy of the best education possible. Thank you all.

Jim: Thank you guys so much.

Christa: Thank you so much.

Andrea: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of CTU Speaks! Please feel free to listen to us anytime on any podcasting platform. And Jim’s gonna tell your some other ways to reach as well.

Jim: You can also email us at CTUspeaks@ctulocal1.org, or you can give us a call at 312-467-8888. And till next time, this is Jim Staros and Dr. Andrea Parker.

Andrea: At CTU Speaks!, where we only speak what matters. Bye!