Monday, May 27, 2002

Teachers for the deaf
are in short isle supply

The shortage hurts less-populated
areas like Maui the most

By Gary T. Kubota

WAILUKU >> Maui resident Kaulana Merrill said she was surprised when her 6-year-old daughter Lena came home with her report card saying the mathematics teacher was unable to assess her progress because there was a lack of sign language interpreters at Wailuku Elementary School.

"She has fallen behind. She lost practically a whole year of first grade," Merrill said.

State education officials acknowledge there is a shortage of certified teachers and assistants able to interpret for students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

The lack of qualified teachers and educational assistants appears to hit less populated areas such as Maui, where the departure of one or two can affect the education of deaf and hearing-impaired students.

State education spokesman Greg Knudsen said the shortage is not only a problem in Hawaii, but also nationally.

"It's clear that it's not enough and we need more," Knudsen said.

Knudsen said the state Department of Education does not have figures estimating the number of certified teachers and educational assistants in sign language needed to serve the estimated 550 deaf or hard-of-hearing students ages 3 through 20 statewide.

But he said department officials are developing plans to improve the pay for educational assistants who receive sign-language training. They are also working on a curriculum at the college level to prepare people to become sign-language interpreters.

Critics say the limited pool of qualified sign-language interpreters partially stems from the absence of college educational courses specifically designed to work with deaf or hard-of-hearing students from elementary to high school.

Observers also say the state Department of Education lacks a job category that would pay educational assistants a higher wage if they obtain sign-language skills.

Educational assistants earn about $9.60 an hour, compared with a sign-language interpreter, who can earn from $25 to $40 an hour as an independent contractor.

Kauai resident Beth Tokioka said her family is fortunate to have an educational assistant to interpret for her son, who is deaf, but she is aware that finding a replacement would be difficult.

"There no telling how long you can keep employees employed if they're underpaid," Tokioka said.

Jean Prickett, administrator for the Hawaii Center for the Deaf & Blind, said she has had to recruit most of her teachers from out of state; her staff turnover is high because many return to the mainland.

At Wailuku Elementary, about 10 students who are deaf or hard of hearing attend a class where they learn sign language and some academic subjects as a group.

Merrill said without enough sign-language interpreters, her daughter frequently has been unable to attend some classes with hearing students.

Wailuku Elementary Principal Beverly Stanich said she had difficulty last year finding a certified teacher in sign language to substitute for a teacher who went on maternity leave.

Stanich said she has a few educational assistants who serve as interpreters, and some work part time at the school.

Beth King-Mock, an itinerant teacher for the deaf in the Honolulu District, said deaf and hard-of-hearing students "sometimes but not often" are unable to attend mainstream classes because of a lack of educational assistants qualified to serve as interpreters.

"If we had another 20 educational assistants who signed strategically placed in correct schools, we'd be OK -- not great, but OK," she said.

Jan Fried, coordinator of the sign language and interpreter program at Kapiolani Community College, said starting this fall, credit courses will be offered to prepare educational assistants toward acquiring interpreter skills to assist schoolchildren.

Fried, an assistant professor, said the college is developing a program for people who want to acquire an associate degree as sign-language interpreters and work in schools from kindergarten through high school.

Families at Wailuku Elementary say that while the state may be planning to improve conditions for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, it has not solved the shortage on Maui.

Phyllis Kim, whose 5-year-old grandson Patrick Borge attends Wailuku Elementary, said she is ready to hire an attorney to make sure the state complies with federal guidelines for the disabled, unless the situation changes at the school.

"It's been too long," she said. "I think it's a special-needs issue, and these special needs should be met."

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