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June 25, 2005

School for deaf celebrates 40 years

From: St. John's Telegram, Canada - Jun 25, 2005

BY Danette Dooley
Special to The Telegram

The Newfoundland School for the Deaf (NSD) celebrated its 40th anniversary last month, and no one was more enthusiastic about the celebrations than teacher Judy (Crocker) Shea.

Originally from Georgestown, Shea was among the first graduating class of the NSD and one of its first students to receive a university degree. She is also the only deaf teacher in the school's 40-year history.

The NSD opened Sept. 22, 1965 with six teachers, 12 houseparents and an enrolment of 54 students.

After graduating from the NSD in 1968, Shea went to Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., a world-leading university for deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing students.

Upon receiving her degree from Gallaudet, Shea returned to Canada and began teaching the deaf in Amherst, N.S.

In 1979, she came back to Newfoundland with six years' teaching experience to her credit to join the staff of NSD.

In addition to her position at the school, Shea also teaches sign language at Memorial University.

Shea ends her teaching career this month on a bittersweet note. While she's proud of her accomplishments, she would like to see other deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals pursue teaching degrees and find employment at NSD.

"When they meet me for the first time, they don't believe I'm really deaf," Shea says through the school's guidance counsellor, Jack Jardine, who acts as an interpreter for the interview.

"When they find out, yes, I am a deaf teacher, that's really important to them."

Shea says, in addition to their academic requirements, she teaches her students how to communicate. As someone who walks in their shoes, she knows the obstacles they face on their pathway through life in a hearing world.

"My heart is going to be broken when I leave here in June," she says of her retirement.

"But I'll be back. Maybe to volunteer or to help out wherever I can. I'll really miss the students. I'll miss them all," she says.

According to Jardine, Shea will be as missed by the students as much as she will miss them. While well deserved, her retirement will be a tremendous loss to the school, he says.

"Judy has been such a powerful role model for the kids since she came to work here. They're really going to miss her, and it's unfortunate that we don't have any other deaf teachers here to replace her. Because, for these kids to see a deaf teacher, that's such a good inspiration for them."

In its early years, the NSD was operated by the department of public welfare.

In September 1965, the school moved from its Fort Pepperrell location to the former RCAF station in Torbay, where it remained for more than two decades.

In April 1971, responsibility for its operation was transferred to the department of education and youth in recognition of the fact that the school was first and foremost an educational facility.

Perhaps the most difficult decision a parent will ever make is to send a child away to school, Jardine says. It's also the most selfless, he adds. As the school's guidance counsellor for almost three decades, Jardine is often a family's first contact with the school.

"It's not easy for me to say to a parent, 'This is the best option for your child.' But you can say that and say it with sincerity because you believe in the quality of the programs offered here."

Due to the geography of Newfoundland and Labrador, a number of students who attend NSD live on campus. These students are offered numerous recreational and life-skills support services which supplement the activities of the school day.

Since Shea graduated from the school almost four decades ago, numerous other students have gone on to pursue post-secondary education, Jardine says.

Today, an estimated 40 to 50 per cent of graduates continue with their education.

Throughout its history, the NSD and its residence has been a haven for deaf and hard-of-hearing students throughout Newfoundland and Labrador. The school is the only comprehensive support service for deaf children in the province.

It has also contributed tremendously to those students who remain in their home communities.

Thanks to the initiatives of the NSD over the years, every school board in the province now has access to the services of an itinerant teacher for deaf and heard-of-hearing students.

The school also offers a home-based teaching program to parents with preschool children who are diagnosed with a hearing loss.

In 1978, when Charles Harkins was appointed school principal, he recognized the importance of maintaining and strengthening the bond between parents and children who lived at the school's residence. Consequently, the school lengthened its days so students could take Friday afternoons off and head home for the weekend. It's a practice that continues today.

"Every child who could, went home every weekend by bus. We had children going as far as Corner Brook every weekend for decades," Jardine says.

The school went one step further by adding a week at the beginning and end of the school year, which would allow students to go home once every six weeks, including regular breaks and holiday periods.

Because the NSD is a home away from home for the students, their parents and other family members are also encouraged to stay in the residence when they travel to the St. John's area to visit their child.

While he says the school is everything a deaf person could ever need or want, Jardine says that, over the years, enrolment at the school has decreased.

The school's enrolment peaked at 150 students. Today, that number has dropped to less than 50 students. Jardine says several factors have caused the declining enrolment.

"It's tied to the decline in the population, and there's also the philosophical approach that keeps kids in their mainstream classroom in their own communities. And then there are people who are moving outside the province."

During the early 1980s, the school saw about 60 per cent of its students living at the school's residence. Today, that ratio has changed to about 40 per cent.

"We saw that when the fishery closed in the 1990s there was a shift, where the families weren't tied to their communities so much."

The benefits of having a child educated at the NSD are tremendous, Jardine says. The school on Topsail Road, which opened in 1987, is designed to meet the unique requirements of the deaf population. Acoustically, it ensures that an optimum hearing environment is available to the students. It's also equipped with visual alarm and signalling devises for safety, captioning equipment and cable with internal text channel and telecommunications (TTD).

Master's-trained teachers of the deaf and hard-of-hearing teach all levels of programs in the school. They work with the students to help them develop their language skills as well as accomplish their academic requirements, he says.

"The school for the deaf, historically, because of its deaf culture, has been a place where the (deaf) culture begins to flourish," Jardine says.

"And this is a major support to these kids as they find their way in life. It's a tremendous foundation for them to build on."

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