When Gertrude S. Galloway toured the Marie H. Katzenbach School for the Deaf in Trenton, N.J., the first thing students asked their new superintendent was, "Are you deaf?"
Galloway, assistant principal at the Columbia campus of the Maryland School for the Deaf for 17 years, was born deaf. Come January, she will be the first deaf woman in the nation to head a school for the hearing impaired.
"I was impressed by the fact that the students were thrilled to learn their superintendent was deaf," Galloway said through a sign language interpreter in an interview after her introductory tour.
So far, so good.
Next, one boy wanted to know if she was a sports fan.
Pleased that the students felt comfortable approaching her, Galloway, a warm, motherly woman, replied that she likes wrestling.
"Could we have a school football team?" he asked.
The new superintendent had been thinking more about academic programs, but she agreed to discuss the possibility of a football team in January, when she takes over.
The students who welcomed Galloway had pressured state officials to appoint a deaf superintendent, the first in the Katzenbach school's 107-year history. Adults in the New Jersey deaf community also staged a "Deaf Superintendent Now" rally patterned on the "Deaf President Now" protests that led to selection of I. King Jordan as president of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.
Galloway, 60, won the post over 47 other applicants from across the nation, after a yearlong search to replace former superintendent Richard G.
Bozza. Bozza resigned to head another New Jersey school district.
Surrounded by packing boxes in her office at the Columbia campus on Old Montgomery Road, Galloway, signing rapidly, explained why she believes it is significant that deaf students have a deaf superintendent.
"It's important for deaf children to have a role model," she said. "(A school for the deaf headed by a hearing person) would be the same as having a white president of Howard University. A school for the deaf should be headed by a qualified deaf person."
Galloway has told her colleagues and students it will be very difficult for her to leave the school's warm, secure atmosphere. After all, it was at MSD that she put her life back together. But she has some ideas she wants to put into practice and New Jersey offers that opportunity.
Twenty years ago, after a divorce she describes as "devastating," Galloway and her three children, then ages 8 to 13, left Rochester, N.Y.
for Frederick. She wanted to be near her family -- she had grown up in Washington -- and Frederick had a small town atmosphere that made her feel safe.
Galloway earned a bachelor's degree in deaf education at Gallaudet University in 1951, but got married after college and worked only occasionally as a key punch operator and substitute teacher.
After the divorce, she decided it would not be the end of her world. She would make something of herself.
One job was open at MSD, and she got it. She began teaching math and working on her master's degree in education, which she received from Western Maryland College in 1972.
In 1973, she was offered the job as assistant principal of the Columbia campus. Now she is working on her doctoral dissertation at Gallaudet.
"I miss the classroom, but here I can see children grow," she said. Her responsibilities include supervising instructional programs for children ages 4 to 12 and for the multihandicapped. She also handles discipline, coordinates interns, develops the curriculum -- and feeds the ducks.
Three years ago, someone left one white duck at the school. The assistant principal began feeding it, and today, eight ducks are living on the campus pond.
Galloway plans to delegate the duck-feeding responsibility, but she spotted Canada geese on the lakes at the New Jersey campus, "and you can bet I'll be feeding them there."
Win L. Tillery, head of the New Jersey Department of Education's division of direct services, said the top post at the Katzenbach School is equivalent to being the superintendent of a small school district.
The campus includes a lower, middle and high school, each with a principal who will report to Galloway. The school serves 275 day and resident students ages 4 to 21.
"We're just very pleased to have her accept this position, and we feel she will provide the kind of leadership the Katzenbach School needs for the next decade," Tillery said.
The new superintendent worries that some interpreters for deaf children who have been mainstreamed into regular classrooms are unqualified.
"So it is possible some deaf children are failing not because of their fault but because the interpreter is not qualified," she said.
Galloway is considering applying for a federal grant to set up a demonstration resource center that would help provide each hearing impaired student with the support services he needs, whether in a regular classroom or in a special school.