A Community within a Community

Story by Jean Van Dyke | Photography by Holly Leitner unless noted

In the 162 years since its founding, the Wisconsin School for the Deaf (WSD) in Delavan has moved from a focus on technical training to an educational facility where its 100 plus students receive an education founded on solid, research-based best practice models for deaf and hard of hearing children and participate in extra- and co-curricular activities. Growing from its beginnings in a private residence the campus has over the years been enlarged and improved regularly, with nine buildings and an athletic field. And the mission of WSD has solidified into one of creating language, opportunity and community for students.

WSD is a bilingual-bicultural school, using two languages of instruction: English, in both spoken and written forms, and American Sign Language (ASL). Deaf and hard of hearing students educated in a Bi-Bi model will become and maintain fluency in two languages — ASL and English — and be contributing members of two cultures — the American Deaf community and the community at large.

The school’s curriculum incorporates the Wisconsin Model Academic Standards as well as Common Core Standards in core academic areas (reading, math, science, social studies, physical education and art) as well as curricular areas specially designed to meet students’ unique needs, such as Deaf Studies and American Sign Language.

Licensed teachers provide formal academic instruction in small group settings. There is no need for students to use interpreters. Many visual communication mechanisms are used at WSD, such as visual messaging boards, videophones and text messaging.

The school has been serving Wisconsin’s deaf and hard of hearing children and their families since 1852. WSD has had an average enrollment of 130 students. “This year, our largest enrollment is in the elementary grades, which is great, because the younger they acquire language, the better,” says Maria Rivera, the administrative assistant who served as the interpreter between this reporter and the deaf staff and students at the school. “Also, many times when deaf or hard of hearing children (who use sign language to communicate) are in non-visual environments, they often miss out on the socialization other children have in school. When everyone around them speaks their language, they can get into conversations, interact with others and even take part in the ‘drama’ that takes place between friends.”

“We encourage parents to learn ASL as well, and we offer classes for them, so they can have a close relationship with their children as they grow. Also, when they go home to visit, their parents can talk to them.”

A HOME AWAY FROM HOME

Since WSD draws students from across the state, it needs to be a residential school. Huff Hall, built in 1974, has been the second home for many deaf and hard of hearing students. All the adults students come in contact with are fluent in ASL, and this provides a rich experience in language, according to Director Alex Slappey, who lacked such an experience in his school days.

“When I was younger, I went to a regular school, where I had teachers who would turn their back on me and write on the blackboard while explaining the lesson. If I hadn’t been able to read the textbook to learn, I would never have understood anything. My fellow students weren’t any help — in fact, on the day Kennedy was assassinated, the announcement came over the school loudspeaker. I saw the commotion as everyone started talking to their classmates. I finally got the courage up to ask a friend what was going on. From that point on, I had virtually no further information, because everyone was too busy talking with each other to bother with the deaf kid,” he recalls.

“Today, modern technology would have made me aware and provided up-to-date information immediately. All my family and all the staff at WSD can communicate via sign language, so I’d be able to discuss the event as well.”

“It wasn’t until I got to Gallaudet (University) that I learned sign language, and it opened up a whole new world. I could understand and communicate with other people. I loved it!”

“In the state of Wisconsin, there are approximately 1,200 children identified as having a hearing loss,” Slappey explains. “Of those, approximately 300 – 400 can benefit and actually flourish from learning and using ASL. Most deaf and hard of hearing students use speech coupled with amplification systems (including cochlear implants, hearing aids). Sometimes, the amplification systems are not a good match for the child’s unique strengths and weaknesses which result in a child having little to no language. If a child has no true language, she/he will struggle with academics. We are here to help children learn a visual language. This school provides a rich environment for language 24/5 (24 hours, five days a week),” he points out. “This approach for deaf children levels the playing field and it ensures our students success in reading and writing English.”

“In our experience, our most academically successful students are those who have a strong signing background, including those who are from deaf families or those who have hearing families who have committed to learning ASL,” Slappey states. “These students overwhelmingly do not struggle with content. Their strong language base allows for the easy learning of academics and English. ”

MAKING DORM LIFE A FAMILY LIFE

The residential arrangement at WSD is designed to provide a safe and healthy living environment and to help students become responsible and independent, which helps them transition into successful adult life. The Student Life Staff helps students develop socially acceptable and healthy habits, guides them in learning proper personal hygiene, gives them a hand with homework, assists with time management and coordinates after school activities.

The elementary/middle school floors in Huff Hall houses students in grades one to eight. Staff assists children in adjusting from being at home to living in a dormitory. Students learn daily living skills and receive positive reinforcement for their efforts in completing daily tasks, which promotes pride and self-esteem.

Students ranging from ninth grade through post-graduates live in a separate area of Huff Hall. At this age level they are encouraged to be independent, and to use their own judgment to address everyday situations that arise. This allows them to succeed and also to make mistakes in a safe environment.

The school also offers housing for students with special needs, whether behavioral or emotional. The students benefit from a smaller student-to-staff ratio, and have the assistance they need to modify their behavior.

STAR PROGRAM EASES TRANSITION

Students Transitioning as Adults to the Real world (STAR) Program is a one-year transition program for those deaf and hard of hearing graduating seniors who may not have gotten all the transition services during their four high school years. This program is designed for those students aged 18-21 who are not quite ready for life after high school on their own.

“STAR students also learn independent living skills, such as doing the laundry, shopping, cooking and budgeting,” Rivera explains. “The budgeting program involves getting a ‘job,’ with time sheets to fill out, along with a ‘checking account’ in which fake money is deposited. The student is expected to keep track of paying bills on time, making withdrawals to shop and the basics of learning how to manage money. If an electric bill doesn’t get paid, that student’s dorm light is shut off. That’s the kind of training they probably couldn’t get at home!”

STUDENTS REPORT THEIR EXPERIENCES

Two students, Lyssa Matsche and Damon Hopp, both seniors at WSD who started the school in sixth grade, shared their thoughts and opinions on what the school means to them. Though their words were expressed through Rivera, their enthusiasm about the school spilled through, as she did a great job in interpreting them talking over each other.

When Lyssa was mainstreamed, she says, “I didn’t like to depend on my interpreter. And I felt like turning my ‘boot’ (amplification device) off, because it didn’t sound right.”

Damon says, “I didn’t like not being able to take part. I had friends who didn’t know ASL, who would kind of say, ‘hi, how are you, bye.’ It has been a complete difference in the years I’ve been here. I have friends, sports, tons of things to do.”

“We have a chance to visit other deaf schools in other states, and to make new friends,” Lyssa says. “I’ve stayed friends with so many of them! This place, WSD, also is a home to me.” “A second home,” Damon adds.

Both students are involved in sports, Damon in football, basketball and track, Lyssa in volleyball, basketball, track and a stint in cheerleading.

Both Lyssa and Damon plan to attend Gallaudet University, in Washington, D.C., a world leader in liberal education and career development for deaf and hard of hearing students.

WSD definitely changed Lyssa’s life. “I would never have been able to take part in sports and travel to other states to play and make new friends. I’ll see many of them again at Gallaudet.”

Damon reports, “One of the cool things about WSD was that I was able to take English at Delavan-Darien High School. It really improved my skills. There are many things about my education which gave me access to resources I couldn’t have had.”

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