Sunday, November 21, 2010

Director of RI School for the Deaf on long-term leave of absence for unknown reasons

From The Providence Journal:

PROVIDENCE, R.I. –– The director of the state-run Rhode Island School for the Deaf has taken a long-term leave of absence, and school officials say they do not know when Lori Dunsmore might return.

Dunsmore, who was appointed in 2007 and was the second deaf person to lead the 134-year-old school, notified school officials she was taking leave on Oct. 6, according to the state Department of Education.

Dunsmore was charged with improving student performance and aligning the deaf school’s classes to the state’s more demanding standards, changes that caused some strain with faculty, who also complained she was not accessible enough as a leader.

In recent months, several staff had left the school, including assistant director Mary Smith and teacher Bruce Bucci. Dunsmore had clashed with the teachers’ union over contract negotiations, according to minutes taken at trustee meetings in August. The school is also bracing for budget cuts from the state.

Because of confidentiality issues, officials declined to comment on the reasons for Dunsmore’s departure.

In the meantime, the department has sent an administrator to help run the school alongside two school administrators, said Andrea Castaneda, the department’s chief of accelerating school performance. RIDE employee Mary Caporelli is working part-time, assisting Mary Pendergast and Dinaz Adenwalla, who are overseeing day-to-day operations at the school, Castaneda said.

The School for the Deaf, troubled in the past several years by leadership turnover, dwindling membership on its board of trustees and communication issues between faculty and administrators, should be enjoying a bright year.

On Sept. 1, the school moved to a $31-million building next to its old, crumbling site. For the first time, the school’s students, from preschool through 12th grade, have access to state-of-the-art facilities including science labs and technology designed for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

But the school now lacks a permanent head. Enrollment has continued to decline from 105 students in 2008, to just 71 today.

Many of the students at the School for the Deaf are eligible for free-and-reduced lunch and several come from families that speak a language other than English at home. In addition, many of the students have multiple needs in addition to being deaf or hard-of-hearing, including autism and behavioral disorders.

For the past year, the state Education Department has worked intensively with the school, requiring Dunsmore to report directly to Ken Swanson, the state’s director of special populations, who left the department last summer. The department also offered training to the Board of Trustees that oversees the public school, and worked to fill several vacancies on the board.

In August, the department returned full authority over to the trustees, but continues to offer guidance and help the board develop a strategic plan and clarify its role as a resource to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, Castaneda said.

The board now has nine members: Chairman Travis Zellner, vice-chairwoman Mary E. Wambach, secretary Marie A. Lynch, Iraida Diaz-Williams, Amy Donnelly-Roche, Angelo Garcia, Jodi Merryman, and two out-of-state trustees, Harvey Corson of Hartford, Conn., and Westley Resendes of Cambridge, Mass.

Despite the challenges, Zellner said in an e-mail “the school is doing very well,” and he thanked the state Education Department and the school’s staff of 26 teachers for their assistance.