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Austine School Struggles To Stay Open

Susan Keese
Brattleboro's Austine School is facing a financial crisis.

Brattleboro’s Austine School for the Deaf is facing a financial crisis that could force its 100-year-old residential program to close. The school’s enrollment has declined, from about 140 students in the early 1980s to about 20 residential students in 2014.

Austine President Bill Gurney says the school’s parent organization, the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, is sponsoring a growing number of programs and services.  

"We’ve seen a large increase in our regional programs where we work with students in their home school," Gurney says. "We reach about 600 students in their local communities."

Gurney attributes the decline in enrollment in part to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act, which required public schools to address the needs of children with disabilities. He says medical and technical advances have also made it easier for deaf children to live in their own communities.  

"We believe there’s still a need for schools like ours for students with multiple disabilities or students who want to be in an environment where the primary language is American Sign Language," Gurney says. "Because for many of our students, they may be the only deaf child in their school. There is a feeling of isolation that those children have to deal with."

All of the organization’s 100 or so employees accepted a 6 percent pay cut this year. A few of the buildings on Austine’s large campus have been leased to other groups. And the school is considering new sources of revenue, including providing on-campus apartments for deaf and hard-of-hearing senior citizens.

A decision on whether to open the school next year could be made at a trustees’ meeting on April 11.

Susan Keese was VPR's southern Vermont reporter, based at the VPR studio in Manchester at Burr & Burton Academy. After many years as a print journalist and magazine writer, Susan started producing stories for VPR in 2002. From 2007-2009, she worked as a producer, helping to launch the noontime show Vermont Edition. Susan has won numerous journalism awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for her reporting on VPR. She wrote a column for the Sunday Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. Her work has appeared in Vermont Life, the Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times and other publications, as well as on NPR.
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