SALT LAKE CITY — Trace Malone wrote a letter to his state legislator and didn't ask for anything except for a quick handshake.
"It was the coolest letter, hand-addressed and written in Braille," said Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry. He said he couldn't pass up the chance to meet 15-year-old Trace, of Ogden, who is blind.
"These are the reasons I'm elected," Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, said Thursday as he led kindergarteners from the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind through various restricted areas of the Capitol. He said they had "special VIP access" for the day.
The school set up a makeshift classroom at the Capitol, hoping to give lawmakers a glimpse of what deaf and blind education is all about.
And while the high ceilings and hard cement walls didn't bode well for some of the hard-of-hearing children — who pick up on sounds better when they are in close quarters — they stayed on task much like any other day.
The deaf students watched intently as teacher Aimee Breinholt spoke to them using her hands. The entire class of all-day kindergarten is taught in American Sign Language, which gives the youngsters a leg up on their language skills. Many of them wear hearing aids or have cochlear implants, which help to amplify sounds but don't necessarily make up for the hearing loss.
"They have to learn to hear with them," said Marilyn Madsen, the school's program director for the deaf in the south region of the state.
Tests conducted at a young age indicate hearing levels from normal to mild hearing loss and from moderate and severe loss to profoundly deaf, Madsen said.
"Every activity we do with them has some objective toward language," she said, adding that many students end up "mainstreamed" and attending school with their peers in later years.
"Success for every child is different," Madsen said. Parents in Utah have a choice with the school to focus their child on signing or on helping them to talk. "There's one best way for every family."
She said the general public has become more aware of sensory impairments, and technological advancements are helping deaf people communicate better than ever before.
"We need to make sure they are taken care of," Perry said. "They're no less important than any other student who goes to school in this state."
Bethy Decaria, 9, started school with her neighborhood peers, but her sight has continued to get worse to the point that she now must use a video magnifier to read passages from her third-grade books. She's bright, and her teachers say she can sound out any word she comes up against, as long as it is big enough to see.
"Being blind means I can't see very well, but I can see colors," said Bethy, who was dressed in pink from head to toe. She's enthusiastic about art and reading and can quickly list at least a half-dozen books she loves.
As a Brownie-level Girl Scout, Bethy can also name and describe every cookie she sells during the organization's annual fundraiser.
Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind teacher Gayla Ward said it's imperative that the students get the attention they need to learn and develop. She works on an individual level with most of her students, and class sizes are kept small for a reason.
Ward and another teacher, Kate Borg, tandem teach several blind students of varying abilities and have been employing a reading program developed by the University of Utah Reading Clinic that Ward said is "phenomenal."
"We've seen some jump two grade levels in reading in just the last year," she said. "That's wonderful for these kids."
Ward is pushing for the passage of SB104, which would make the same reading program available to more teachers at the school and in more areas of the state. It carries a nearly $1 million fiscal note, but "would be worth every penny," she said.
Under state rule, the Utah Legislature funds and directly oversees the school, which has locations in Ogden, Salt Lake City and Orem.
"These are their kids," said Superintendent Joel Coleman.
Lawmakers occasionally visit the school, specifically to check on facilities, which is important this year as a growing population of children requiring deaf and blind education services is bursting the school's seams, Coleman said.
"It's a critical need right now that we get a new building in the Salt Lake area," he said.
The school, which has more than 2,000 students in programs that span ability levels from birth to age 22, is also seeking funding this year to add a few new teacher positions, pay its teachers more and to add professional development opportunities for teachers.
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