Despite its disappointing test scores and years of struggling to boost student achievement, the Hawaii School for the Deaf and the Blind has fierce champions in the community, including parents who say the school came through for their children when inclusion programs — in their former schools — did not.
The sign language immersion campus is also seen as a cultural resource for the deaf community: a welcoming place for the deaf in a hearing world often difficult to navigate and sometimes impossible to understand.
Jaye Carmen of Wailuku, whose daughter attends HSDB, said the school teaches children that "there is something out there for them."
Carmen added that he knows the school is a "work in progress." But he said his daughter has blossomed there, after falling behind at her middle school on Maui.
At 15, Carmen’s daughter, Lena Merrill, is now one of HSDB’s brightest stars. She recently took the Miss Hawaii’s Outstanding Teen crown and dreams of becoming a civil rights lawyer.
Lena attended HSDB briefly when she was in grade school, but went back to Maui because she was homesick. Then in middle school, she noticed she was falling behind other students. She sat down with her parents and they all decided to give HSDB another try.
"I just love it here because I have direct communication," Lena said through an interpreter.
For special-education students, one of the fundamental goals is including them in general-education classrooms as much as possible.
But schools for the deaf continue to exist because educators also acknowledge sometimes a deaf student learns better among other deaf students — and from a teacher who signs.
This becomes even more true in high school, when deaf students can feel increasingly isolated and when the subject matter gets more difficult.
And so HSDB, established in 1914, has been able to survive over the years, even through a rocky period in the 1980s when it had just nine students.
"Inclusion is great, but these kids are included," said Sydney Dickerson, school principal, adding that all employees on campus know sign language.
At HSDB, "kids can see language all the time. They are able to tell the custodian that we need more paper towels in the bathroom and they would not have that in a general-education setting."
Today, HSDB has 77 students — about one-fifth of children in Hawaii public schools who are hearing impaired, visually impaired or deaf-blind attend the campus.
Over the past decade, its population has remained above the mid-60s.
At the school on a recent morning, a high school math class was under way and teacher Dewayne Berg was juggling a lot of concepts at once.
His class of four students (ninth- and 10th-graders) has a range of math competency levels, from third-grade math to pre-algebra.
"They each progress at different levels," Berg said. "Luckily, math is pretty visual."
One of his students, 15-year-old Lokene Lindsey, was working through a worksheet on prime and composite numbers.
She has been attending HSDB since kindergarten.
When asked why she remains at the school, she said, simply, "I don’t have to have an interpreter."