NISD Director of Deaf Education Kayla Hughes

Kayla Hughes’ commitment to deaf education is quite personal. Her then-young daughter’s own diagnosis of being Deaf helped steer Hughes’ teaching career into deaf education. Hughes is now NISD’s Director of Deaf Education and oversees the Nacogdoches Regional Day School Program for the Deaf provides students from Nacogdoches ISD and 22 other school districts from five counties.

Years ago, before committing her life’s work to deaf education, Hughes learned that at the time, the typical student with profound hearing loss graduated with no more than a fourth-grade education. That was not the outcome she wanted for her own daughter.

“Being told this statistic over and over again ate at my conscience,” Hughes said. “How could this be? Are we failing our deaf population? My daughter is deaf, but she’s not dumb. 

“Immediately, I decided those statistics were not going to be the “preconceived” expectations for my daughter. It was upon this revelation, I decided to change my major to the field of Deaf Education.”  

Hughes became a deaf education teacher, but when the program’s administrator resigned, co-workers encouraged Hughes to apply for the opening. She resisted at first.

“My immediate answer was,” said Hughes, who’s now in her 16th years as director. “I thought, ‘No, I love teaching and love helping my students and their families.’ However, I realized my impact could be greater because I bring a unique set of qualifications to my position. Not only am I certified as a principal, general education teacher, ESL, deaf education, and as an interpreter, I am also a parent of a deaf child.”

Hughes is not the only staff member of the Regional Day School with a personal connection. The parents of Joanna Jordan, a deaf education teacher at Nacogdoches High School, are deaf. Rachel Rosson, a deaf education teacher at Emeline Carpenter Elementary, is hard of hearing, and Rhonda Smith, a paraprofessional in the program has a grown son who is deaf and attended NISD.

“It is all very personal to all of us, and each of us have a vested interest in it for different reasons,” Hughes said.   

September is Deaf Awareness Month, an opportunity to increase public awareness of deaf issues, people and culture.

NISD’s deaf education program reaches far beyond the district’s boundaries, encompassing five counties and 22 other schools: Alto, Bullard, New Summerfield, Rusk, Center, Central Heights, Cushing, Garrison, Chireno, Douglass, Etoile, Woden, Martinsville, Laneville, Mount Enterprise, Henderson, Joaquin, Shelbyville, Timpson, Excelsior, Tenaha and Wells (and also provide services to Stephen F. Austin State University Charter School when contracted).

Here’s a Q&A with Hughes: 

Explain how NISD’s deaf education program works… such as, how we serve as a regional program for surrounding districts as well as for our own students.

Our deaf education program is the Nacogdoches Regional Day School Program for the Deaf (RDSPD). Regional Day School Programs for the Deaf were created by Texas Education Agency as part of the state law requirement that the agency develop a statewide plan to address educational services for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. 

These programs enable students to attend school as close to home as possible. Our program provides a continuum of services for students who meet the criteria as Deaf or Hard of Hearing when being evaluated for special education/deaf education. 

Even though there are many controversial feelings from the Deaf Community regarding this, Deaf Education does fall under the "umbrella" of Special Education and follows the same regulations and laws for Child Find, evaluation, and identification.  

So, we are basically the Deaf Education program for 23 school districts, and I am the point of contact that works directly with each district's or Co-op's (some districts in my SSA are part of a Special Education SSA in a Co-op) Special Education Director on consultations, referrals, evaluations, reports and recommendations.

How do students enter the program?

Regional Day School Programs serve students from birth to age 22 through the same Child Find methods as Special Education. We receive referrals from ECI (the state's Early Childhood Intervention Service Programs-we work directly with two programs) on babies (birth-2), referrals through Child Find (these come from different places, such as doctor's office with parental consent, hospitals with parental consent, churches, community members), referrals from parents/guardians/family members and referrals from the school districts.

We work alongside ECIs and the LEAs to evaluate the child to determine eligibility and recommend appropriate services based on the evaluation. These services are individualized to meet the unique needs of each student evaluated, but part of our considerations in addition to the considerations we have for all students is with students who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing is ensuring access to peers and professional personnel that communicate in the child's communication mode (oral, auditory, sign language). 

Our services include, but are limited to, Parent-Infant Advisor/Deaf or Hard of Hearing (DHH)Teacher alongside ECI in the homes of our 0-2 year olds, itinerant services for students where we send a DHH Teacher to the home districts to pull students for individualized services based on their needs, centralized classrooms here in Nacogdoches ISD for students that services on a daily basis from a DHH Teacher and/or need communication access services daily such as sign language interpreting, text to speech captioning and sign-supported speech. Additionally, we provide consultation services to our member districts.  

These include, but are not limited to, ARD representation, consultation and interpretation of hearing evaluation results, consultation with teachers that serve students, district and campus level trainings, teacher trainings and audiological management.

We also provide services to parents of the children that wish to learn sign language by providing someone to work with them on sign language development.  

Deaf education students are in regular classes, right?

Yes. It is individualized for each student, but our students do attend regular classes as much as possible. For those that need it, additional accommodations are required to ensure success (such as preferential seating, hearing assistive technology, copy of class notes, extra time), a sign language interpreter, signing aide (for sign supported speech), and/or captionist (for speech to text) are in/or added to those classes to ensure communication access and success.

How many are employed in NISD’s Deaf Education program?

Six Certified Teachers of the Deaf (all highly qualified) – Ashely Ward, Rachel Rosson, Roshonya Cordero, Joanna Jordan, Christel Long and Annmarie Dempsey.

These six teachers are certified in the following areas: All – DHH/AI certified birth to 21 (with TASC component); four – EC-6th generalist; one – 4th-8th generalist; one – 9-12 English and math; five – ESL;  two – certified interpreters; two – certified to teach ASL as foreign language credit; and two – parent-infant certified.

Four paraprofessionals (we will contract or use others on a part-time basis – Becky Ebert is being used right now to help) – Ella Higgenbotham, Melanie DeValcourt, Lisa Lalumandier and Ronda Smith.

These four paraprofessionals are certified in the following areas: One – certified interpreter; one – certified C-Print Captionist; and two – deaf education aides (one with Bachelor’s degree and one that is one semester short of a Bachelor's degree in Deaf Education).

Administrator – Kayla Hughes, who is certified in: DHH/AI Teacher birth to 21 (with TASC component); certified interpreter; EC-6 generalist; ESL; and principal certification.

One clerk/secretary – Judy Cole.