Ventura Unified School District board members this week reduced hours for the district's program for hearing-impaired infants, starting what could be a protracted struggle between parents and administrators.
In a 4-1 decision, board members Monday voted to cut the program from five three-hour days to three three-hour days, plus a fourth day of 110 minutes of "language enrichment." The children, ranging in age from 18 months to 3 years, will also be mixed for the first time with other handicapped infants in an attempt to provide equal services to all, a district official said.
"We are responsible for servicing infants of all handicapping conditions," said Ric Nargie, district director of pupil services. "What's been happening up to this point is that the hearing-impaired infants were receiving five days of service at the expense of other handicapped conditions."
Five Infants Affected
According to Nargie, the board's decision affects only five hearing-impaired infants. However, it also marks the end of a 20-year program that was the first of its kind in California.
Founded by Ventura resident Betty Harris in 1969, the program at Loma Vista School has sought to address the needs of hearing-impaired infants. District officials contend that these needs can be met through the abbreviated program. Others, including Betty Harris, the program's founder, are not so sure. Without attentive early intervention, they say, hearing-impaired children could be set back for life.
"They should have the five days," said Harris, who under the plan will teach hearing-impaired children between 3 and 5. "They need five days. I've done it for 23 years, and that's what they need."
"You can't educate without language," said Chuck Starn, whose 22-month-old son Matthew joined the program after contracting meningitis and losing his hearing. "Matthew appears to be quite bright and, if he has the opportunity, he could do great things. But if you don't do things early, they'll never progress. . . . If he gets behind now, he gets behind forever."
Plans to Appeal
Starn, who moved from Santa Barbara to Ventura to enroll his son in Harris' five-day-a-week program, said he plans to appeal the board's decision through the fair-hearing process, meeting with district officials and a state-selected hearing officer. According to Starn, several other parents will also appeal.
Should the hearing officer decide that the district must revert to its five-day program, the district must do so, Nargie said. However, decisions will probably be made on an individual basis, he said.
Nargie said that although the reduction appears to be substantial, it simply brings the district in line with similar programs throughout the state, including the county's only other hearing-impaired infant program, operated by the Simi Valley Unified School District.
Addressing parent's concerns about putting children with various handicaps in the same classroom, Nargie said teachers and administrators would see to it that classes combine children "who would fit appropriately."
Won't Be Hodgepodge
"It's not going to be a hodgepodge of infants thrown together to serve them in any way possible," Nargie said.
The board also voted to add two part-time interpreters to the district's hearing-impaired program for elementary school children. In the special classroom, interpreters help hearing-impaired children mainstream into the regular classroom. The new interpreters will work at Loma Vista and Elmhurst schools. District officials estimate the additional cost for the two part-time positions at about $4,800.