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March 19, 2005

Officials: New school may be needed

From: The News Journal - Wilmington,DE,USA - Mar 19, 2005

By EDWARD L. KENNEY / The News Journal


The roof doesn't leak. Students are safe and warm inside the 36-year-old Delaware School for the Deaf's brick building in Ogletown.

But for reasons not so outwardly apparent, it could be time to build another school, said Edward H. Bosso Jr., director of the state-funded school. Bosso has been working to submit a feasibility study on the subject to the state Legislature this month.

Swiftly changing technology and demographics have helped make the school, also called Margaret S. Sterck, grow old before its time, he said. And if it doesn't keep pace, the school could fall even further behind.

For one, Bosso has seen a steady increase in students with cochlear implants at the school. Eight of the 157 students there have had the implants, which provide a form of hearing through an electronic device implanted under the skin behind the ear. These students must be taught differently. They need to be taught to hear, to develop neurological pathways to the brain, and the school is ill equipped to accommodate them.

Dr. Robert O'Reilly, director of the cochlear implant program at Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Rockland, said the hospital has done about 25 of the implants since the program started two years ago.

A partnership between the hospital and the Delaware School for the Deaf is in the works, O'Reilly said.

"They're going to help us out with these real young children, to be able to give them the services in a comprehensive manner," he said. "Additionally, they've asked us for our technical experience."

The pupils with cochlear implants at the school are pre-school-age children, Bosso said. By about age 6, many of them should be able to attend a mainstream school.

Pupils in general are coming to the school at younger ages, Bosso said, and that also contributes to the need for new facilities.

With newborn screening launched in Delaware two years ago, babies are tested shortly after birth to see if they have hearing problems, he said. Parents usually learned through interaction that their children had problems by age 1 or 2. Now the school is seeing babies along with the toddlers.

The school accepts students from birth to age 21, and with the earlier ages, the emphasis is more on teaching parents what to do for their children, Bosso said.

Advances in medicine also mean more of these younger children are coming in with disabilities other than hearing loss, and they need to be cared for in special ways. Much as regular schools have special education classes, the School for the Deaf has had to look for ways to accommodate children in different categories, he said.

There also are physical reasons to seek a building change, he said. When the school was constructed, it was built too much like a mainstream school and not a building for deaf students.

"There was no system for flashing lights, for flashing doorbells, for lights on telephones. These things weren't thought of," he said.

Lately, the school has been doing a lot of retrofitting. Blue lights installed on the ceiling throughout the school last year - even in the closets - alert students that something important is happening and they should go to the nearest TV to wait for instructions. Green lights, also installed last year, let the older students know when it is time to change classes, eliminating the need for people to run throughout the school to tell everybody.

Other additions over the years have included a dorm and cafeteria complex constructed in 1971 and a gym and pre-vocational wing built in 1984-85. The dorm accommodates students who live downstate and stay there on weekdays because of the lengthy commute, as well as basketball players who sometimes spend the night if a game ends late, Bosso said.

Not all students spend a full day at the school. Some have varying degrees of hearing ability, and 60 percent of the student population spend part of the time with an interpreter at a mainstream school, Bosso said.

Bosso has been meeting with officials from the state's Department of Education, the State Budget Office and the Christina School District, which administers the school, about building anew.

Kelli Racca, Christina's supervisor for planning and capital projects, estimates it could cost $22 million to $25 million to construct a new building.

Martha Brooks, whose duties at the education department include curriculum and instruction improvement, counts herself as a recent convert to the cause of building a new school.

"When we first started this discussion, I wasn't quite sure, but they've pretty much convinced me," she said.

Brooks would like to see a building planned with the next 50 years in mind, not just one that would cater to needs of today - "a school designed with every technological thing we can think of, to make it so it can adapt and move into the future quite easily."

Specifically, Brooks said she would like to see a new school include technology that would provide more support to off-site classrooms through video conferencing.

A new school also should be able to accommodate deaf children who additionally have mental-health issues, she said.

If the state provides money for a new building, she has asked Christina to consider building it in the southeastern portion of the district.

"We have a lot more students from the Kent [County] and Sussex County area than we've had in the past," Brooks aid.

Bosso prefers a site in New Castle County because it is the highest-populated county in the state. A November count showed 55 percent of the school's students live in New Castle county, 25 percent in Kent County and 20 percent in Sussex County.

A 200-acre wooded property is available about 200 yards from the school on Chestnut Hill Road that would make an ideal site, Bosso said.

"We've always been told that it's our land, the School for the Deaf's land," he said.

There are about 350 to 400 school-age deaf children in Delaware, he said, adding that a more specific count is hard to pin down because some of them have primary physical difficulties in other areas.

Contact Edward L. Kenney at 324-2891 or

© 2005 News Journal