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May 16, 2003

Kids find safe haven at school for blind, deaf

From: Florida Today, FL - May 16, 2003

By Jennifer Ellis FLORIDA TODAY

High school senior Amelia "Amy" Bergman spent seven years in public school, lost in a sea of students. She struggled with her grades, skipped class and was generally unhappy.

In 1998, Amy, who is deaf, decided she wanted to follow her older brother and transfer from Columbia Middle School in West Melbourne to the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine.

"In deaf schools, they have smaller classes, and you can be one-on-one," she said. "They allow kids to play sports, which they didn't at home."

Her parents agreed let her transfer, and for the past five years Amy has toiled away in the classroom. She's taken difficult classes, including Latin 2, and in her downtime was on the school's dance troupe, performing throughout the state and at the Capitol.

Sitting on the edge of the stage at the school recently, Amy, 18, said she joined the troupe for a very personal reason. "I did it to get over my stage fright."

Tonight, she will take to that same stage in her graduation gown as class valedictorian.

In her speech, Amy will thank her teachers at Florida School for the Deaf and Blind for allowing her to be a student, not a student with a disability.

Amy summed up her five years at the boarding school saying it provides more than an education. FSDB provides a community geared to the needs of the state's deaf and blind youth.

FSDB, founded in 1885, is a state-supported boarding school for eligible hearing- and visually-impaired students, pre-school through 12th grade. Education and boarding are free for in-state students. The school is comprised of two departments: the Department for the Deaf and the Department for the Blind and Special Needs. The special needs department serves students who are either deaf or blind and who have a secondary handicap that affects their ability to learn.

Each year, more than three-fourths of the graduating class continue their education at colleges, universities and technical training centers. Twenty-one children from Brevard County attended FSDB this year, including two deaf elementary students, one deaf and four blind middle school students, one blind and 10 deaf high school students, one special-needs elementary student and two special-needs high school students.

Blind and deaf students spend as much time learning how to survive in a world not designed around their needs as they do learning how to make change, how to multiply and how to tell a noun from a verb. At FSDB, children are taught being deaf is a characteristic, not an impediment. Here, learning how to take care of themselves, how to keep their bodies clean, how to get dressed and how to do laundry is as important as learning to write a five-paragraph, expository essay.

They're lessons mom would teach, if mom were here and were a dual-certified, special-needs teacher with at least a bachelor's degree.

"This school is a safe environment," said Elwin Merrill, 16, a blind eighth-grader from Cape Coral. "Everyone here is no different. They might look different, but they really aren't different. We're teenagers."

The teachers must follow the Sunshine State Standards set forth by the Florida Department of Education. The school offers a traditional curriculum -- reading, history, math, science. But at FSDB, students also take classes such as Orientation and Mobility, where the blind kids learn to get around with just a cane and their senses, and a hygiene class where both blind and deaf students begin by learning how to clean a bathroom.

Life skills

Deep in the center of campus is the Dragon's Lair. A diner and campus hangout by night, during the day it's a classroom where students learn to work in a restaurant environment. It's not a tough class, there's really not much testing involved. But the students do all the work: from setting up the tables, washing the floors and sterilizing utensils to making the salads, cooking the burgers and running the register.

Because Dragon's Lair is there to serve the students, the food is cheap -- $2.75 for a burger, fries and a soda. The place is known for its pizza, and the atmosphere it is served in is reminiscent of the lunch counter at Woolworth's or the local greasy spoon. It's a place to hang out, to eat and to talk about the day's events.

There's also a class where students become delivery people and deliver lunch cooked at Dragon's Lair to hungry school staff members. And for the more artistic types, there's a cake decorating class and flower/agricultural class (appropriately named Dragon Flower) where students run a store.

These classes, along with the mentoring they get from the faculty and staff members running them, help students gain a source of pride in their education they say was lacking when they went to public school.

"Deaf kids are invisible in the public school," said Marilyn Bergman, Amy's mother. "They are followed around by an interpreter who checks up on them all the time. They cannot be free, they cannot enjoy time with their friends."

For many deaf kids, that lack of social interaction combined with teachers not capable or trained to work with deaf students, means grades suffer.

"I didn't care about school until I got here," said Angel Yarbrough, 16, a deaf junior from Jacksonville. "I was always a loner, and I really wasn't doing well, because I was always seen as different. I went from Cs and Ds to As and Bs."

Homesick blues

Micha Coleman, 13, came to FSDB as a fifth-grader. Now a seventh-grader, he dreams of being the first deaf player in the NBA. He calls his mom in Clermont every week and relies on his school friends to keep him from getting lonely.

"They tell me to take a deep breath," he says. "It works."

It's a lesson Evan Greenleaf had to learn, too.

Now 11, Evan first left home in Jacksonville for FSDB as a 5-year-old.

"I like school, but you have to be awake a long time," the fourth-grader said. "And they won't let me play my Nintendo here, because I won't pay attention or get my work done."

Today, going to boarding school has become routine for the deaf boy, who says he doesn't miss school when he's home and he doesn't miss home when he's at school.

But not all students are so lucky.

Elwin said he spent his first few years at FSDB in total misery.

"I cried and cried every single day," he said. "They took me to the infirmary and checked me out. Everything was fine, but I ended up in the infirmary a lot. I was fine by age 13, and I'm fine now. . . ."

Fitting in

It' s hard not to fall in love with the quiet campus and its charm. In an age where most public schools are built with economy and function in mind, FSDB is more like a small college campus.

And, unlike most Florida schools that close for June and July, FSDB will be busy all summer hosting day camps and summer programs. Many students come to the camps year after year as a way to keep in touch with the deaf community.

Anniesha Gill, a deaf eighth-grade residential student from Jacksonville, has no deaf friends at home to hang out with. Neither of her parents is deaf, and before she came to school, she spoke only limited sign language.

"I had a hard time communicating with hearing kids," the 15-year-old said. "I can lip read, but . . . here, I could understand everyone, but I didn't understand all the signs at first. Now, I can understand my teachers, and I've learned so many new signs."

Insherah Sughayer's reasons for attending the FSDB are deeply personal. Sughayer, who is visually impaired, is a practicing Muslim. She wears a traditional head covering. As a result of her poor vision and religious dress, the 11-year-old drew a lot of negative attention from her peers.

But at FSDB's blind middle school program, Sughayer, a sixth-grader from Jacksonville, isn't penalized for her failing vision -- rather, she is celebrated because she has limited sight and uses her ability to see to help her fellow students in the blind middle school program.

As she negotiated her way down a long corridor and out into the sunshine, Sughayer is a perfect example of how FSDB is a place where kids, regardless of their needs, are first and foremost allowed to be kids.

"(FSDB) is pretty much the same as public school, but we don't have art because the blind kids can't see," she said. She points out local campus landmarks as if she were a professional tour guide.

"Watch your step here. The sidewalk drops off. I learned that in mobility class."

Copyright © 2003 FLORIDA TODAY.