IM this article to a friend!

June 22, 2007

RSD senior class tiny, but its pride stands tall

From: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle - Rochester,NY,USA - Jun 22, 2007

17 'very unique' grads are the most in 22 years

Greg Livadas
Staff writer

A senior class of 17 may seem tiny for most high schools, but when students accept their diplomas tonight at Rochester School for the Deaf, it will be the school's largest graduating class in 22 years.

For some of the graduates, RSD has been the only school they've ever known.

And Superintendent Harold Mowl Jr., who became the school's first deaf superintendent in 1990, has watched many of them grow up during his tenure.

"That's what keeps me going," Mowl said, "watching the kids grow up and seeing them ready to move on."

The cycle of graduation continues at RSD, although schools for the deaf have closed throughout the country in recent years because of funding troubles and decreased enrollment.

The school nevertheless faces challenges. RSD had 137 students enrolled this year, from seniors to those in preschool programs. That number is expected to shrink to about 120 next year, said Mowl.

"Families have more options," Mowl said. "And Rochester itself is experiencing a general decline in population."

Finding new students remains an issue. And keeping them in the school is harder, as more deaf students are being mainstreamed into public schools with interpreters and note takers. There are also programs targeting deaf students at occupational schools.

The transition to mainstreamed schools has become easier for deaf students with such technological advances as cochlear implants, which can provide some hearing for those eligible for the surgery. Although there are students at RSD with cochlear implants, none of the seniors have them. Most prefer to communicate with American Sign Language.

So far, RSD's doors have stayed open, in part because of the large deaf population in the area. Rochester is often described as having one of the largest concentrations of deaf people in the country.

"We've always received wonderful support from the community," Mowl said. "I want RSD to continue to become an important option in the Rochester area."

Joshua Johnston, 17, of Honeoye Falls attended RSD's infant program when he was a year old. His parents, Deborah and David, are also deaf, as are his younger brother and sister.

"My wife and I thought about where to send him. It wasn't an easy decision," David Johnston said.

Over the years, Joshua's parents asked him if he wanted to switch schools, to be mainstreamed with hearing students. But he was happy where he was.

"I was scared of other people. I didn't want to be transferred a lot. I preferred to stay at that school," Joshua said.

"It was the socialization, the friendships he's made there," David Johnston said. "He's very comfortable with his sign language."

In the fall, Joshua plans to attend Rochester Institute of Technology, where his father works.

"I'm happy, of course," Joshua said. "Most of my friends are at RIT."

Of the 17 graduating seniors, 11 plan to attend RIT or its National Technical Institute for the Deaf. One graduate plans to attend Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., and four plan to take vocational programs. One is returning to her native Malaysia.

An end, a beginning

The graduates' last week on campus was spent taking tests, getting pictures taken and practicing for graduation. Dorm students packed boxes for their move. Yearbooks were passed around and soccer balls kicked at a picnic at Mowl's Pittsford home.

It was there that Marilyn Curley, director of the school's early childhood program, reflected on the graduates, many of whom she knew as toddlers.

"I feel a sense of pride, especially where they're headed after school, to college or good jobs and experiences," she said.

"They're wonderful kids," said Nancy Heaney, director of RSD's high school program. "They're very diverse, very unique. And they have worked very hard to achieve their goals that are appropriate for them. They've made it."

Carolie Simone, an RSD board member since 1993 and former president, is the commencement speaker. Simone, wife of retiring RIT President Al Simone, will remind students that learning shouldn't stop now.

"Graduation is not the end to education. Education is the beginning of a lifelong pursuit of learning," she said.

A scholarship in her name was created for a student attending NTID. RSD senior Matthew Poe, 19, of Henrietta is the first recipient.

Joe McCarthy, 19, came to RSD in 2005 after a school for the deaf in White Plains closed its dorms. Even though there were closer school options, McCarthy took a four-hour bus ride to RSD each Monday from his home in Cochecton, Sullivan County, and returned home on Fridays.

"They give a good education here," McCarthy said. "It's better here."

He, too, plans to attend NTID this fall.

Chad Evringham, 17, of Bergen, Genesee County, has attended RSD since he was 3 months old. His father, Phillip Evringham, graduated from RSD in 1973. Chad's fondest school memory is competing on championship soccer teams. And he enjoyed life in the dorms, including a senior prank last week that involved shaving cream, itching powder and underclassmen.

Chad plans to attend Gallaudet to become a teacher in physical education or ASL.

Jonathan Sanchez, 19, of Greece has been attending classes at RSD since he was 7 and excelled at soccer and basketball there.

"It's a great school. They help the kids a lot and give him a lot of opportunity," said his mother, Maria Avila.

Jonathan plans to take BOCES occupational training for automotive work in the fall.

Barbara Spiecker of Henrietta is class valedictorian. Her earliest memories at the school are face-painting in kindergarten and dressing up for a Thanksgiving play. Her fondest memories are the trips she took with the school, including to Italy and to space camp in Alabama.

For three years, she split her days with classes at RSD and Rush-Henrietta High School, where she was accompanied by an interpreter.

"The classes were more challenging, but here (at RSD), there was better interaction with students," Barbara said. "Here, the communication is so much easier and it's easier to communicate with the teachers."

She's excited about graduating and will attend RIT in the fall.

"I'm very ready to move on," she said.

Class of 2007
* Danny Baker, 18, Rochester.
* Cory Behm, 18, Hopewell Junction, Dutchess County.
* Scarlett Bishop, 19, Henrietta.
* Nichol Bristol, 18, Marion, Wayne County.
* David Canter, 19, Brighton.
* Jessica Derleth, 20, Holley, Orleans County.
* Chad Evringham, 17, Bergen, Genesee County.
* Gavin Gutierrez, 19, Henrietta.
* Joshua Johnston, 17, Honeoye Falls.
* Shannen Lim, 18, Perak, Malaysia.
* Joseph McCarthy, 19, Cochecton, Sullivan County.
* Matthew Poe, 19, Henrietta.
* Jonathan Sanchez, 19, Rochester.
* Barbara Spiecker, 17, Henrietta.
* Sofia Syed, 20, Manlius, Onondaga County.
* Jason Wiedner, 20, Henrietta.
* Abigail Worek, 16, Brighton.

Rochester School for the Deaf, 1545 St. Paul St., was founded in 1876. It remains one of nine schools for deaf children in New York. Thirty-four of the 137 students this year lived at the school during the week. RSD operates on an $11.7 million annual budget, $10.7 million of which is provided by the state. To learn more, go to

© 2007 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle