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School for the Deaf Staff, Students React to Potential Downsizing

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Miguel Gutierrez, Jr./KUT News

The Texas School for the Deaf sits on 67 acres in between South 1st and South Congress. It looks more like a small college campus than a traditional school building. But then again, says school superintendent Claire Bugen, this isn't a traditional school.

"We serve students from age zero, in our parent/infant program, through home visits. And then when the student is 18 months old, they start to come on campus for part-time services. Now these are local students. All the way through age 22. So our continuum of services is very broad," Bugen says.

And their services extend far beyond the campus and local students.

If a school district has a deaf student, and they're trying to figure out how to create an educational program, TSD can help out.

"Schools like ours have taken on a role of serving the entire state, families, parents, local school districts, through our outreach services," Bugen says.

She says the school is no longer the asylum it was built to be back in the late 1800s. But even with innovations like online classes, and local districts simply making an effort to accommodate deaf students, the school is home to more than 500 students, with about half of them living on campus.

"This school means literally the world," says TSD alum Donna Valverde-Hummel.

She says before going to the school she lived a life of two extremes, which led to her mother nicknaming her 'rabbit.'

"Because I'm very hyper," she says. "But also I can isolate myself at times." 

That isolation came from living in a hearing world, one that she didn't know how to communicate with. Then she started going to TSD at the age of 13. And she discovered another world because she could constantly communicate with people.

"Oh, I can tease with other kids," Hummel says. "I can flirt. I can pick on my teachers. I can talk back to teachers. I can become friends with my staff and teachers here. I got out of my rabbit hole so to speak."

Superintendent Bugen says most of their campus residents move in around age 13, a time when adolescence and the desire to experience new things can highlight any isolation a deaf student is feeling at school.

"I want to play football. I want to be in a drama performance like the students in my public school. But I don't have that same opportunity," Bugen says.

So with those kind of opportunities and emotional ties to the school that gave students a new life, it's probably no surprise how alumni reacted when the idea of selling some or all of the school's land was brought up by Houston Senator John Whitmire this week.

"You're sitting on some of the most expensive land in Austin. You've got a lot of acreage, a lot of needs, and I think there could be a coming together and figure out a better solution," Whitmire said.

"It felt like we were getting bombshells thrown at us. We were getting bombed by these different questions. And I thought, oh crap. Pardon my French," says alumna Bobbi Beth Scoggins.

She says the suggestion shocked her. And she quickly found out she wasn't alone.

"Once word got out, facebook, twitter, all within the community itself, alumni to alumni, that chatter began, that discussion of what is happening," she says.

Superintendent Bugen says she's spent the last 48 hours fielding calls from angry alumni and supporters wanting to know what they can do to help. She's trying to take a more measured approach. Bugen says she’s actually more upset about the anxiety the hearing has caused staff and students than she is about the possibility of losing some of her campus.

"Could we function on a little less acreage than we have now? Probably, but probably not a lot less, because remember this is 24 hours a day. This isn’t the bell rings at 8 o'clock and you go home," Bugen says.

But that doesn't mean she's not being proactive. She's already made appointments to meet with a few Senators on the Finance Committee. And has already reached out to the House budget writers as well, since the same discussion could pop up there too.