OKLAHOMA CITY — A proposal to tighten standards for interpreters who work with deaf students may frustrate efforts to recruit them to rural schools, critics say.

The state struggles to find interpreters who can translate what teachers say into sign language, according to those who help students in need of special services.

Education leaders say they fear tougher requirements, as suggested by Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, will make it harder to find interpreters and could turn away some who are already working.

“We need a plan to ensure that Oklahoma can meet student needs on a continuing basis before adopting a new system. That's a necessary first step," said Andrea Kunkel, attorney for the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration. She heads the council's programs for directors of special services.

It wasn't immediately known how many interpreters work in Oklahoma’s classrooms, though officials say it’s likely hundreds of people. Students who are deaf or partially deaf are enrolled in 335 districts, said Kunkel.

But only 94 to 200 interpreters meet the state’s current standards, Kunkel said. Kern contends they impart at least 80 percent of the information accurately. Less-proficient "signers" communicate with 50 to 60 percent accuracy, she said.

She said it's time to raise requirements to ensure that Oklahoma gives students the best education possible.

"What kind of education are we giving our students when people who aren’t qualified are acting as interpreters?” she said.

Kern acknowledges that deaf education is not her expertise. She said she’s worked with members of the deaf community and school leaders over two years to develop requirements that she believes are reasonable.

Kern said her proposal offers a variety of certification options, which will only cost educators a few hundred dollars to achieve.

The standards would go into effect July 1, 2017.

“This is a student population that is being ignored and they shouldn’t be,” she said.

But in a state with a number of working professionals who don’t meet current standards — and for rural districts that cannot recruit needed certified interpreters — the idea is proving controversial.

Kunkel cited concerns over how increased standards will affect schools and their interpreters, especially since it's unclear how many people work as interpreters now.

Kunkel said more time is needed to study the ramifications.

Many districts struggle to recruit interpreters, she noted. Qualified translators live in just 27 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties, with most clustered in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Cleveland and Canadian counties, said Kunkel.

Fifty counties have no interpreters within their borders. None live west of Canadian County, she said.

Kunkel said some states have higher standards for their interpreters, while others' are lower.

If Oklahoma tightens its requirements, potentially excluding a large number of current employees, she said the burden for educating deaf students will likely shift to the state’s School for the Deaf, located in Sulphur, about 90 miles south of Oklahoma City.

The school now enrolls 69 residential students, as well as other day students. The number of commuter students was not immediately available.

Kunkel said districts that lose interpreters or less-skilled signers could put students and their families in a bind.

“If personnel aren't available, then districts that might previously have served students directly may need to seek their admission to the Oklahoma School for the Deaf," she said. "If the School for the Deaf isn't within daily driving distance, then residential placement at that school might be necessary. That would be a con if the student and family didn't desire residential placement.”

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