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June 4, 2004

School for the Deaf opens doors to the community

From: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, NY - Jun 4, 2004

By Greg Livadas
Staff writer

(June 4, 2004) — The students at one Rochester school guzzle chocolate milk at lunch, are reminded to slow down in the halls and look forward to playing ball when classes are done.

What makes this school unique is that some students live on campus and it has a staff that uses sign language. The 145 students are deaf or hard of hearing.

Despite more educational options for deaf children, Rochester School for the Deaf, one of nine such schools in the state, remains a popular educational option for families as far away as the capital region and Sullivan County, four hours away. Yet it remains a mystery to many in the local community who have never had a reason to visit.

An opportunity comes Saturday, when the school, tucked next to the Genesee River gorge and Eastman Kodak’s Hawkeye Plant at 1545 St. Paul St., hosts its 10th annual Spring Festival. The public is invited to participate in games, pony rides and other family-oriented activities.

Many students and faculty members will be at the festival.

One of 26 RSD students who live on campus during the week, Anthony Guild, 17, of Big Flats, Chemung County, has been a student there for three years. He said he was picked on by students in the public school he used to attend because he wore hearing aids.

”They didn’t like the fact that I’m different,” Anthony said, perfectly voicing his words. “I like to hang out with my own type. People here understand me. They know how I feel.”

Sending a child to school so far from home can be difficult, but for Anthony’s mom, “it was the best decision I ever made.”

Lu-Ann Guild, who grew frustrated when her son was targeted at public school, admits it was “very hard when he first went up there, but he came home the first week and was signing already. His grades have greatly improved. He’s a different person up there. He certainly came out of his shell and is becoming more confident. His self-esteem has soared.”

A century of change

RSD opened in 1876, when four teachers taught 20 students trades that didn’t rely on hearing, such as sewing, cooking, woodworking and printing. Today, the school focuses on the same subjects as public schools. Speech therapy and deaf studies — featuring the contributions made to society by deaf individuals — are also offered. At least four of the six seniors due to graduate June 25 will earn a Regents diploma, said RSD Superintendent Harold Mowl.

Mowl, the school’s first deaf superintendent, respects informed parents’ choices about where to send their children, but believes RSD has “the best show on the road for deaf and hard of hearing children. I continue to believe that RSD is the best place for them.”

In the early days, deaf students — and sometimes their hearing siblings — stayed at the school full time. Later, they went home for holidays. In the 1970s, students began going home on weekends.

Angela Mauro, who graduated from RSD in 1962 when about 150 students lived at the school, now works evenings there as supervisor of residences. Fewer students living at the school today make it more like a close-knit family, she said.

”The dorm counselors back then were called houseparents, and while they were nice, they were nothing like what the dorm staff at RSD is now. We try to meet each student’s needs by giving them a lot of individual attention and making them feel special.”

Not all residential students are far from home. Sadia Aliuddin, 18, and her brother, Faiz, 17, are from Perinton but opt to stay at school during the week to be with their friends.

”We don’t know too much sign language, and if they get behind in their homework, we let them stay in the dorm,” said their father, Mohammed Z. Aliuddin. “They are very happy and have good friends there.”

Deaf students in public schools may have a tough time finding others who communicate as they do.

”When you’re a teenager, peer pressure is a big thing,” said Nisha Ferry, RSD’s director of development. “When you’re one of 300 in a school and no one speaks your language, it’s very isolating.”

Outsiders may think living in a dorm is akin to living in an institution, a sad option that keeps the children away from their families and homes. Those misconceptions continue “when our society thinks of deafness as a disability and a residential school as a place where parents send their kids when they don’t know what to do,” Mowl said. Although kids may get homesick, they can call their parents on TTYs or video phones any time.

After school

Plenty of other RSD students linger on campus long after their classes are over. On one day last week, the co-ed softball team beat a visiting public school team, 15-7. Staff and students cheered and waved their arms in the air when senior Nate Poe, 18, of Henrietta hit a home run.

Several students watching the game also feverishly pressed buttons on their text pagers to communicate with their friends.

In Willis Hall, the building that serves as housing for the residential students, Anthony Palmer, 13, of Unadilla, Otsego County, sat alone at the desk in his room doing homework. On the girls’ floor upstairs, Tiffany Barker, 13, of Rochester, and Melissa Jones, 13, Mattydale, Onondaga County, watched captioned television news. They wanted to know more about a baboon that had escaped from the zoo just up the street.

By 5:30 p.m., the students had walked to a nearby building to the cafeteria for dinner. Russell Thousand, himself a graduate of RSD, had plates of pasta waiting for the students. Some preferred just a salad or a hamburger.

After dinner, Nichol Bristol, 15, of Marion, Wayne County, a cheerleader during basketball season, spent time by herself in a recreation room, contently finishing a puzzle.

Nearby, Natalie Rider, 17, of Dundee, Yates County, was sitting at a table doing science homework. She rocked slightly back and forth to a tape of Destiny’s Child her mother gave her.

”I don’t understand the words, but I like the beat,” Natalie said.

Outside, Klima Klimentyeva, 9, from Schenectady, waited for a school security officer to unlock a storage area where bicycles are kept. She used a text telephone to let the officer know she wanted to ride up and down the sidewalks on campus.

Sometimes, students have the option of taking a school van to the mall, to roller skate, to see a captioned movie or interpreted play, or to go to a baseball game.

On this day, Jacob O’Neill, 17, of Irondequoit stood alone on the auditorium stage to poll fellow students on which movie they should watch.

RSD is the only school Jacob has known. He’s enrolled in the school’s Life Skills program, which teaches students with multiple learning challenges the basics to live on their own after high school. He’s been manager of the school’s basketball and soccer teams and is a right-fielder on the softball team. He enjoys acting and dancing — he can feel the beat of loud music.

His family’s choice to send Jacob to RSD was an easy one, said his mother, Anne O’Neill.

”He comes from a hearing family, with hearing relatives and a hearing community, and I really wanted him to be immersed in a total sign-language atmosphere, from the administration down to his peers,” she said. “He honestly has thrived in that environment. Being able to communicate with everybody has made such a difference.”

Jacob only uses sign language to communicate and would not benefit from hearing aids or a cochlear implant.

”There are many issues Jacob has, but being deaf is not one of them,” his mother said.

If you go
What: Rochester School for the Deaf Spring Festival, including crafts, games, face painting, pony rides, clowns and food.
Where: Rochester School for the Deaf, 1545 St. Paul St.
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.
Admission: $2; $3 for families.
For more information: Call (585) 544-1240 (V/TTY) or visit:

Copyright 2004 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.