Suhayb Ali starts kindergarten this fall, and his family boasts that the energetic 5-year-old with a fondness for "Curious George" will be well ahead of his peers.
But that preparedness might not have happened if not for a specialized preschool program at the Metro Deaf School, a small pre-K through 12 charter near the State Fairgrounds in St. Paul.
Suhayb, who is deaf and has been diagnosed with autism, knew the sign for just one word before starting preschool: shoe.
Now, nearly three years later, he has a vast command of American Sign Language (ASL). It can be difficult to keep up with his fast-paced signing, said his sister, Hamdi Sheikhsaid, a University of Minnesota physiology student.
But for other children like him, that lifeline came to an abrupt end after the last legislative session.
The final education budget bill that emerged after weeks of contentious negotiations between the Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton's administration left out the funding needed for parents to enroll preschoolers who are hearing impaired. Metro Deaf School is the only school in the Twin Cities to offer preschool instruction in ASL, the predominant sign language in the United States, and one of only two such schools in Minnesota. The other school is in Faribault, Minn. More than 30 school districts have placed hearing-impaired preschoolers at Metro Deaf since 1997.
Susan Lane-Outlaw, executive director at the Metro Deaf School, was dismayed when she learned legislators effectively prevented parents from enrolling their preschool-age children with a disability at charter schools. State law allows that option at charter schools once a child enters kindergarten.
Research shows those early years are a critical period for language acquisition. "If we wait until kindergarten, which is when parents can place here, they've lost that opportunity of language," Lane-Outlaw said.
Legislators and Dayton's administration offer different versions of what happened to a program whose funding — $30,000 per year — amounts to a tiny fraction of the state's multibillion-dollar budget.
Legislators had cut the spending provision from the education bill in the final stages of the regular session. Dayton then vetoed that bill because it did not fund his universal preschool proposal, pushing legislators into overtime. House Education Finance Chairwoman Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, said that legislators made the cut after learning from staff about the cost for the deaf program.
"That's where we got into a bind," she said, "needing to find money within our allocation." Despite the state's projected budget surplus of $2 billion, Republicans had pledged to preserve that for tax cuts and not spend additional money.
Loon called the outcome "unfortunate" and said "that's usually the case with budgeting. There's a list of very important things, and we can't do all of them always."
She added: "It got edged out by some things the administration wanted more."
Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius sharply disputes that assertion. She said she made clear during a hearing before the special session that Dayton and her department wanted the Metro Deaf funding restored. She said it was among changes the administration sought during final negotiations over the education bill. "This is something that was really important for us, and to me personally," Cassellius said.
She called it "disappointing" and "perplexing" that the minuscule amount of funding necessary for Metro Deaf School's prekindergarten program was left out. "They didn't take a lot of our suggestions to make the bill better," Cassellius said. Minnesota Department of Education officials have said they will pursue the matter when the Legislature convenes in early March.
Invaluable to families
When California couple Abigail Boettcher and Kathleen McKenna looked at preschools for their 3-year-old son, Henry, they chose Metro Deaf.
The school sits in a former warehouse. Bright yellow on the outside, the interior has been designed entirely for the deaf and hard of hearing. Shelves are low, so students and staff can sign easily from across the room. Lab tables are angled for unobstructed views of teachers.
All the adults at Metro Deaf, including janitorial staff, know sign language. More than half of the adults are themselves deaf. Lane-Outlaw said that is intentional, because it's important for the children to have mentors.
Boettcher, who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area before coming to Minnesota, said the program has been a boon for her family, and they're eager for Henry, who will turn 4, to continue his schooling.
"He came in with 60 expressive signs and left with 200," Boettcher said. "It took him three years to get 60 signs and now he's at 250."
For Suhayb's family, the school's programming has created a community they say has become invaluable.
Metro Deaf School offers free ASL courses for parents, and Suhayb's parents partook. "The one thing that has made our family very happy is the language that we got," his mother, Fowsia, said through her daughter, Hamdi, who interpreted on her behalf.
"Before … we didn't have a language for him," Fowsia, 42, said through her daughter. That made it difficult for Suhayb to communicate his feelings, Hamdi said.
The school's physical and occupational therapy services have helped Suhayb thrive, his family said. He will start kindergarten at Metro Deaf in the fall.
"I feel like he knows a lot more than kids his own age," Hamdi said. "The program gave him that. Without it, forget about advantages. He wouldn't even have a language to begin with. Can you imagine a 5-year-old starting kindergarten who doesn't really know how to speak or write or read?"