In September 2014, the parents of deaf, hard of hearing and deaf-blind students in Vermont were anxious.

Early that month, the Brattleboro-based Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing had closed abruptly. The center had anchored a statewide system of deaf, hard of hearing and deaf-blind — or DHHDB — education staff, and parents were worried about the future of their children’s schooling.

Advocacy groups held rallies at the Statehouse, and some floated the idea of asking the state to step in and operate the school.

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A few weeks later, the state found a replacement: Nine East Network, a Montpelier-based consultant that, in the seven years since then, has served students across the state.

But this summer, Nine East shut down its program. Now, DHHDB education in Vermont schools is undergoing another transition, one that again has sparked anxiety among advocacy groups — and raised questions and criticisms about how Vermont serves the roughly 500 students who fall into those categories.

“The problem with (the Agency of Education) is that they have a mindset that comes from a hearing perspective, with no deaf or hard of hearing or deaf-blind perspective,” Elizabeth Fox, a co-president of the Vermont Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, said through an interpreter in an interview. “The life perspective of people that they’re serving is not considered.”

Many of Vermont’s DHHDB students attend specialized independent schools. But those enrolled in public schools can still access a range of services, depending on their needs: audiologists, interpreters, American Sign Language instructors, teachers of the deaf and more.

Nine East Director Susan Kimmerly cited several reasons for the shutdown. For one thing, she was planning for retirement and hoping to transfer ownership of the organization.

Kimmerly also grew frustrated with how the state handled the process. Each year, Vermont awards a roughly $1 million grant for those DHHDB services. This year, it was about $1.05 million. Although Nine East has received it for the past seven years, the relatively short grant period — which lasts just one school year — threatens the stability of the services, Kimmerly said, and forces bidders to compete for a small pool of specialized staff.

“It was like this combination of events,” Kimmerly said. “It was like, ah, it’s just not worth it.”

After Nine East announced its departure, two organizations bid to replace it.

One of them, Vermont Early Hearing Detection and Intervention, took care to highlight that it would provide a smooth transition. The organization would hire Nine East’s former staff and would maintain “a similar organizational structure to that of the current provider,” the organization said in its bid documents.

The other bidder, which is now called the Consultation, Access, Resources, and Equipment Support, or CARES, Team, offered a break with tradition. The old system, in which schools relied heavily on one company, presented “barriers to collaboration and a monopolizing of services,” CARES argued. The organization proposed a new, “forward-thinking” model.

CARES is affiliated with the University of Vermont’s Center for Disability and Community Inclusion, while Vermont Early Hearing Detection and Intervention is linked with the UVM Medical Center. The two organizations are not connected.

After weighing the two proposals, the Agency of Education selected CARES. But that decision, advocacy groups said, threatened to upend DHHDB education in Vermont’s public schools.

In a letter sent to state officials two months ago, four organizations — Deaf Vermonters Advocacy Services, the Vermont Association of the Deaf, Vermont Hands and Voices and the Vermont Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf — outlined “grave concerns” about the award.

“We believe the AOE’s decision to award the grant to (the new provider) will have a profoundly negative impact on Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and DeafBlind students, their families, and the schools that serve them,” the organizations wrote.

Chief among their concerns was this: Through Nine East, schools had access to DHHDB educators and other professionals trained in instruction, interpretation and sign language.

But CARES did not plan to provide as many services itself — meaning that schools or districts might need to go elsewhere to find interpreters, sign language instruction and teachers for deaf students.

“The AOE awarded it to a group that wasn’t going to take care of all of the kids that needed it,” Amelia Briggs, a board member of Vermont Hands and Voices and the mother of a deaf-blind child, said in an interview. “And I think that’s the bottom line.”

But administrators at CARES have pushed back on what they called “misconceptions” about their work. The organization had not cut DHHDB services in schools, administrators emphasized in a letter posted to their website in October.

The reality was that Nine East Network, CARES’ predecessor, had contracted with many DHHDB education professionals — teachers of deaf students, sign language instructors and others — which made it simple for schools to find and hire them, administrators said. But that system, they wrote, “ended when their organization abruptly closed.”

“Our real goal is to support schools in meeting this need. It’s not to meet the need ourselves,” Margaret Overman, the co-director of the CARES Team, said in an interview. “If we find a student needs a lot of support, then we can help the school identify resources and ways to get that support.”

In interviews in November, advocacy groups said some students were not getting the school services they needed — a claim that CARES disputed. Overman and a spokesperson for the Agency of Education said they were unaware of any students who were not receiving services.

But that could be thanks to the organization’s former competitor. In the wake of the grant award, staff members of Vermont Early Hearing Detection and Intervention — CARES’ rival in the bidding process — created a new organization, the DHHDB Educational Services Program, to fill the gap.

By contracting directly with districts, that program now serves 89 students across 29 districts, according to Linda Hazard, the initiative’s supervisor. But scaling up so quickly was not an easy task, she said.

“I mean, when you talk about bringing on 31 staff — that’s a big lift in the middle of the summer when school starts on Aug. 31,” Hazard said.

“Honestly, it’s a big mess,” Rebecca Lalanne, the director of Deaf Vermonters Advocacy Services, said through an interpreter in an interview. “Is it a radical change? Hard to say. But definitely a big mess.”

Overman admitted that the transition has been disruptive. But that disruption, she said, simply highlights the need for more collaboration between organizations. The CARES Team hosts regular meetings to hear feedback from community members, Overman said, and she urged the four advocacy groups to reach out to her.

“We would love to meet with them,” she said. “We want to collaborate. We want to include them in these processes.”

The transition also highlighted concerns about the state agency’s grant selection process itself, advocates said.

The committee reviewing the bids included no DHHDB people or sign language users, advocates said. One reviewer, they said, even wrote “I am the least qualified to review these services” on a scoring rubric.

Fisher, the Agency of Education spokesperson, said grant reviewers had “the relevant expertise” and that the grant selection process was “thorough and informed.”

He said the grant was designed to support school districts and supervisory unions, but it was those local bodies — and not the state or its grantee — that ultimately bore responsibility for educating DHHDB students.

Advocacy groups saw something darker in how the grant was worded, too. Taken all together, the groups said, the requirements listed by the grant seemed to prioritize speaking and listening services — at the expense of American Sign Language and other forms of signed communication.

Some saw this as a sign of audism, or discrimination against those who are unable to hear.

“For myself as a Deaf person, the scope that I saw, I would call invalid,” John Pirone, a member of the Vermont Association of the Deaf, said through an interpreter in an interview.

“It feels like language deprivation,” said Lalanne of the Deaf Vermonters Advocacy Services. “It feels like education deprivation.”

Overman of CARES emphasized that the organization respects all the students it works with and their preferred methods of communication. The organization has a teacher of deaf students and sign language instructor on staff, she said.

“We support all communication choices,” she said. “We really work hard to support them without bias around communication mode or methodology.”

And Agency of Education officials “strongly dispute” that allegation, said Fisher, the state spokesperson. The text of the grant is the same as in previous years, he said, and “covers a wide, diverse variety of services.”

But he left open the possibility that the state could change the grant’s language — or how it is awarded — in the future.

“At the same time,” he said, “we are always open to improving our processes.”

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