A haunting tradition at School for Deaf

Halloween: Pupils at the Columbia school will find a pirate ship and a crew of costumed teachers providing this year's frightful surprises.

October 30, 2002|By Donna W. Payne | Donna W. Payne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

An elaborate haunted house complete with a pirate ship and crew, a spooky maze and a skeleton version of the principal is the central attraction at tonight's Halloween festivities at the Columbia campus of Maryland School for the Deaf.

The school is one of two state-funded campuses that serve Maryland's deaf and hard-of-hearing children. The other campus is in Frederick.

The haunted house is a school tradition, and its details are a yearly surprise for the pupils, said Cheri Dowling, president of the school's Parent-Teacher-Counselor Association. Middle school teachers and staff members plan the event.

"It's an incredible haunted house," Dowling said. " ... Once this one's over, they start planning next year's. ... We have a very creative staff."

Sixth-grade teachers Anne Drechsler and Sue Maginnis said that costumed teachers guide pupils and their families through the scary passageways (and jump out from unexpected places) and the kids enjoy trying to identify their masked teachers.

For this year's pirate-themed event, volunteer Dave Finneran, with a crew of two from his Hampstead deck-building company, built a wooden pirate ship with sail and accouterments. Tonight, teachers dressed as pirates will guide their guests onto the ship's deck (where someone will have to walk the plank) and into the ship's galley where samples of "ghouly food" will be offered to the participants.

Maginnis said that if things get too intense for the younger children, the "pirates" will be ready to remove their masks to reveal a familiar face.

"We're a very friendly, rated-PG haunted house," Drechsler said.

On Monday, anticipation was running high for 11-year-old pupils Miesha Rahman of Baltimore and Brett Ches of Baltimore County. Their excitement was evident in their smiling faces and expressive signing as they recalled last year's haunted house. Miesha signed that she liked the slimy bowls of spaghetti in the monster's kitchen and Brett signed that he liked seeing a monster eat rats on a stick. The Columbia campus serves children from birth to age 16, with nursery, preschool, elementary and middle school programs.

Its attractive, modern buildings occupy a landscape of wide green lawns set among birch and willow trees. The school opened in 1973 and serves about 110 pupils, said Principal Richard Steffan. The Frederick campus, which has a high school, opened in 1867. The schools have a "rich history" and strong alumni support, Steffan said.

"We are a bilingual education program," he said. "Our children's native language is American Sign Language so we teach using American Sign Language." The school also teaches the children written and spoken English.

About a third of the pupils - those whose homes are too far away for a daily commute - live in campus residences during the school week. The day pupils sometimes stay overnight with the residential pupils, Steffan said.

"Deafness ... isolates kids so that they love the school because they have friends that they communicate with and ... pal around with. A lot of times, when kids go home, they don't have anybody [except family members who sign that] they can really talk to," he said.

Language is the key impediment, Steffan said, since deaf children use a different language than do hearing children. He compared the difficulties deaf people sometimes have to those that English-speaking visitors might experience in a non-English-speaking country.

The Columbia school addresses a variety of educational needs. It offers a regular public school curriculum, a program for children with multiple disabilities, enhanced service for those with moderate to severe disabilities and an early-intervention program for children from birth to age 3.

The school also emphasizes outreach to the community. The family services program has two full-time staff members who "are the link between the home and the school," Steffan said.

In addition, Dowling and educator Maryann Swann direct the state-funded Parents for Success program, which offers free, public workshops and a lending library with information about deafness. It also serves as a resource for parents.

Information: Parents for Success, 410-480-4597; Maryland School for the Deaf, www. msd.edu.

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