Ever since her son was 6 months old, Juliet Hidalgo has been bringing him to the Marlton School, a low-slung building in Baldwin Hills that for generations has been a second home for deaf and hard-of-hearing students in Los Angeles.
Marlton staff taught Hidalgo's brother and sister, both of whom are deaf. The school was where her deaf son learned to make the signs for "milk" and "food." Hidalgo had planned to enroll her daughter, taking advantage of a popular program that allows hearing children to learn American Sign Language alongside their deaf siblings.
But after more than a decade of involvement, she and other family members are considering withdrawing their children. They are not alone.
Anger over the school's administration has sparked a revolt led by parents, alumni and advocacy groups who believe the school is in crisis. They point to high turnover, cuts to extracurricular programs and sports — and the absence of high-level staff fluent in ASL.
Earlier this month, dozens gathered outside of Marlton to demand the resignation of the current principal, Lisa DeRoss, saying she is not qualified to lead the school because she does not know ASL. They held posters that read, "Deaf Principal Now!" and "Take Back Deaf Education."
The protest was the latest and most visible chapter in an ongoing conflict between the school district and L.A.'s deaf community.
A year ago, experts in deaf education launched a letter-writing campaign calling for L.A. Unified to replace Marlton's outgoing principal with an administrator fluent in ASL. "Now is the time to break the cycle of hiring administrators who are unprepared to lead Marlton," wrote two East Los Angeles College professors. The district's decision to hire DeRoss — Marlton's third principal in five years — inflamed tensions.
"The situation has gone from bad to worse," said Ellen Schneiderman, a Cal State Northridge education professor who previously taught at Marlton and still has ties to the school. "The tone and morale at the school is awful. Many families have pulled their children. We have lost some outstanding teachers because they can't take it anymore."
Founded in 1968, Marlton is the only school for deaf and hard-of-hearing children that's run by a California school district. It was created to provide these students with an educational environment in which they could communicate with everyone from the school nurse to the campus custodian without interpreters present. Teachers applying to work there have to be exceptional at signing.
Today, none of its administrators are fluent in ASL, though some, according to a district spokesman, possess a "working knowledge" of the language.
Hidalgo and other parents said they had seen school administrators reduced to pointing and gesturing to communicate with deaf students and teachers.
"It's like if you only speak Spanish and I come here and I talk to you in English," said Hidalgo, 26. "You're going to be like, 'What's she talking about?' That's exactly what's going on. This is a deaf school. You can't just treat it like a hearing school."
L.A. Unified spokesman Samuel Gilstrap said that while the district can't comment on whether Marlton's principal will stay on, district officials are considering making ASL fluency a requirement of the job. They are also exploring whether to expand the pool of potential applicants by opening the position to those with less administrative experience.
"The District is committed to establishing a career path to increase the pool of candidates who have ASL fluency and the required administrative credentials," Gilstrap said in a statement. "We will also establish a recruitment plan that strengthens the communication pipeline and allows for a wider pool of candidates, including interested persons who do not currently work within LAUSD."
Most of the 2,100 deaf and hard-of-hearing students in L.A. Unified attend their local schools, learn in typical classroom settings and rely on interpreters. According to district officials, Marlton enrolls only 135 of these students. Despite its small size, it has for years had the ardent support of parents, some of whom drive from as far as the San Fernando Valley or Carson so their children can be taught in both ASL and written English.
Its competitors are few — two state-run schools in Riverside and Fremont — yet its enrollment has been shrinking steadily as birth rates fall and families opt out. With about 230 students (including hearing siblings) enrolled in K-12, Marlton is about 25% smaller now than it was in 2010.
In interviews, Marlton parents described the school as a gem that had been allowed to fall into disrepair.
"In my time it was great. We had a great sports program, we had everything — it was a full program," said Jobani Aguilar, 29, who is deaf and attended Marlton as a child.
Speaking through an interpreter, Aguilar said the experience of his sons, 5 and 7, has been markedly different. Budget constraints led the school to cut many of its after-school activities and organized sports. Although the school's website displays pictures of its volleyball and basketball teams, parents said those are long gone.
"Coming back now with my sons, I see that things have definitely deteriorated," Aguilar said. "I've heard it might be a good idea to have my kids pulled out and put them elsewhere, but I really don't want to do that."
For some families, leaving Marlton would mean uprooting their entire household. The nearest public alternative, California School for the Deaf, Riverside, enrolls deaf and hard-of-hearing students from 11 counties in Southern California. Many live at the school and go home only on weekends.
Several families said they were considering moving to Riverside. But others said they felt trapped, forced to choose between a school stripped of its offerings and L.A. Unified programs in which their children might be the only deaf students among hundreds of hearing peers.
Roughly 97% of the students at Marlton come from families whose income is below the poverty level, making the prospect of picking up and moving that much more daunting. But even those facing hardship said they would leave the school and possibly the district if L.A. Unified didn't hire a principal with a background in deaf education.
"I want things to change," Hidalgo said. "I want a deaf principal. At the very least, I want a principal who understands my child's language."