A cloistered world considers opening up

With enrollment in mind, the Md. School for the Deaf explores admitting hearing students for the first time

December 04, 2006|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun reporter

FREDERICK --Since its founding in 1868, the Maryland School for the Deaf has been cloistered from the wider world. Students walk a picturesque campus of green lawns and old brick buildings, speak American Sign Language and enjoy their own culture. . Now the school is considering a radical step that could end that segregation: a proposal to accept a limited number of hearing students.

The school's superintendent says it should think about admitting hearing students to ensure that enrollment in years to come will remain large enough to be viable. Others say the deaf community and its culture could only become stronger if more hearing people were exposed to it. The school's board of directors is setting up a committee to explore the proposal over the next year.

To take such a leap would be seen as plowing new ground in deaf education, and could be controversial. Only a few other schools for the deaf admit hearing students.

But more young deaf children are getting implants that allow them some degree of hearing and, unlike a century ago, the majority of deaf students are going to regular public schools. The trend worries some educators who wonder if deaf culture and American Sign Language will dwindle away as fewer children attend schools for the deaf and fewer learn to sign.

James Tucker, the school's superintendent, sees its rich tradition of experimentation as a backdrop for trying something new to attract more students.

The state-run school was one of the first to adopt a standard public school curriculum and one of the first to teach in a bilingual environment - students learn to sign and also to read and write English. Classes are offered to help deaf students who want to learn to speak.

"So I see hearing students as part of the tradition here. We always want to be on the cutting edge," Tucker, who is deaf, said through an interpreter. But only if parents, students, teachers and the board feel comfortable with the proposal will the school go ahead with it, Tucker said. Even then, the school would have to go to the General Assembly to ask for a change in its charter.

With campuses in Frederick and Columbia, the school serves about 500 deaf and hard of hearing children from infants to 12th-graders. In a high school on the Frederick campus, students can stay in dorms during the week, but most are day students. The classrooms are very quiet, with teachers signing to classes of eight or 10 students. While some students speak and sign, others only sign. Much of what is being taught by the teacher is projected on a screen in the front of the classroom in English.

If the school did open its doors to hearing students, school officials say, most would likely be children of deaf parents - children who likely learned American Sign Language before they learned to speak. Senior Michelle Lapides, for instance, is from a family with several generations of deaf individuals. Her hearing sister, she said, might have liked to come to the school. Tucker's family is similarly mixed. He and his wife are deaf; they have one hearing child and one deaf child.

Hearing children already operating in a deaf world are likely to be the first to sign up, Tucker said.

He said he gets occasional inquiries from hearing high school students around the state who are studying American Sign Language and wish to immerse themselves for a year or two to become more competent.

But Tucker hopes to capture the attention of parents of children with cochlear implants - electrical devices implanted in the inner ear that allow deaf people some degree of hearing. The school already enrolls students with the implants, but many more such children are attending regular public schools.

While Tucker is not opposed to the use of the implants - some deaf people are staunchly opposed - he said he believes that some schools are not adequately preparing those students. Some students with implants, he said, appear to speak beautifully but have difficulty hearing and their academic skills have suffered. They come to his school far behind academically, having failed in regular public schools. "Academics and speaking skills are not the same," he said.

He believes some children with cochlear implants would benefit from learning sign language and from the deaf culture in the school. He said that children who learn American Sign Language, or any language, before age 3 are more likely to be successful academically later in life.

"If we had hearing students here, maybe parents [of children with cochlear implants] would say, `Maybe I will leave my deaf children here,'" Tucker said.

While the school's review of Tucker's proposal has just begun, several students said they support the idea. Lapides, 17, who has attended the Frederick campus since she was very young, said through an interpreter that when first confronted with the concept, she thought it "drastic." She has since changed her mind.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.