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June 5, 2004

ST. Mary's School for the Deaf has come a long way since 1853

From: Buffalo News - Buffalo,NY,USA - Jun 5, 2004

'Our goal has always been what's best for the deaf child.'

News Staff Reporter

The click of her heels echoing in the vacant linoleum stairwell, teaching assistant Mary Faye's fingers are flying.

Faye, an elementary-level teaching veteran, isn't absent-mindedly talking to herself. She's absent-mindedly signing to herself.

Actions replace words at Buffalo's St. Mary's School for the Deaf, which culminates its 150th year celebration with a gala and auction today in the Buffalo Convention Center.

For as long as the school has been around, St. Mary's employees - even those with flawless hearing like Faye - embrace many communication methods to meet students' individual needs.

"Our goal has always been what's best for the deaf child," said Sister Virginia Young, a former teacher, administrator and now board member. "Many deaf children like to be with other deaf children. Even if they are in a classroom with 20 other kids, they can still feel isolated."

St. Mary's, one of nine state-supported schools for the deaf, established itself in 1853 and began instructing with just "four girls and a few boys" and an acre of land on the corner of Edward Street and Elmwood Avenue - now condominiums. In 1898, the school moved to its present site on Main Street, which cost just $100,000 to build.

The school's enrollment peaked in the 1950s, when as many as 250 attended. Today, 130 are enrolled - 10 graduated this year - and the numbers continue to decline.

Young, one of four nuns left at the school, said the trend is welcome, however, and indicates a more accommodating public school system.

The decline, she said, can be attributed to "mainstreaming," or deaf students taking some classes in their home district and some at St. Mary's, which will bus the pupils back and forth throughout the day.

"They can still get an education either way," Young said.

The school also partners with Canisius College in offering a graduate degree program in deaf education, training teachers to teach deaf students.

Though starting primitively - at one time the school operated without sign language and depended solely on teaching the students to speak - St. Mary's today boasts the latest in technological equipment.

Deaf staff members are equipped with vibrating pagers. Video relay allows students to communicate instantly with deaf peers across the country via television, and 27 students with Cochlear Implants, a device embedded in the ear that stimulates nerve endings, are enrolled.

"The school has always been on the cutting edge of trends, methods and technology," Young said.

Graduates with semi-celebrity status also gloss the school's history pages.

Jeffrey Perri, also known as the Tomato Chef, is a household name in the cooking world and has released instructional videos on Italian cuisine. Father Thomas Coughlin, the Catholic Church's first deaf priest, attended St. Mary's for high school, and other graduates have gone on to work for big-name corporations such as Sprint or have become lawyers and engineers.

"I think people become more aware of the accomplishments of deaf people," Young said. "For many years, it was thought the deaf couldn't learn because they couldn't hear."

Though colleges are required to provide interpreters for deaf students, many St. Mary's students attend Gallaudet University, a college for the deaf in Washington. Gallaudet president, I.

King Jordan, served as co-chair on the anniversary board committee.

Some of St. Mary's staff have spent their entire careers at the school. First grade teacher Kathy Kibler has been there for 30 years and English teacher Patti Michalek for 25.

"You come, you stay," Kibler said, laughing.

Kibler's classroom looks like any other for first graders, displaying the new maps the students created of their neighborhoods with their favorite landmarks: Burger King, Wal-Mart and the bowling alley.

"We try to make things visual so the kids can really understand it," Kibler said. "We're doing a lot of things that regular kids are doing, just more experiential, more visual. The focus is always more on language."

Last week, students produced an elaborate version of the musical "West Side Story."

"We had some voice interpreters, some kids signed for themselves. Some kids are Spanish-speaking and could use all their languages," Michalek said.

The sesquicentennial celebration featured a hodgepodge of other events throughout the year. Some of these included sports, like the school's nationally ranked soccer team, and a vintage fashion show, which featured clothes from every decade.

The school's celebration this evening will honor several individuals and companies for their contributions to the deaf community, including Le Metro Restaurant on Elmwood Avenue for its efforts in hiring deaf employees. The gala also will recognize the Sisters of St. Joseph, who founded the school and also are celebrating the 150th year of their order.


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