Community Health Magazine - Special Report
Sharing the Human Experience
Rochester School for the Deaf specializes in high-performance education and life enrichment
By Karen Marley
There is a widespread misconception about deafness among those who can hear — the idea that being deaf is an impairment or handicap. This way of thinking is wrong. Being deaf is a human condition that creates a different human experience. One that is shared among those who are deaf and hard of hearing.
Rochester School for the Deaf (RSD) provides a place where persons who are deaf and hard of hearing can learn, grow and develop in the context of this unique human experience. The premise that the lack of ability to hear can be inconsequential to leading an accomplished, fulfilling life is embedded in all aspects of life at RSD, which exists to provide and enhance the educational and life-growth experiences in an optimal environment for children and students who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Founded in 1876, RSD opened with 20 students and two teachers and a few support staff in downtown Rochester. Teachers and students lived together. By the end of the first year, enrollment had increased to 70 students.
Within a few years, enrollment grew to the point where the school needed to relocate. At that point, it moved to its current site near the outskirts of Rochester on the banks of the Genesee River. Over the years, RSD repurposed buildings and the property, growing into a tight-knit community known for its rich and accomplished history, continued successes, and meaningful relationships forged between students, families and the faculty. That early tradition of teachers and students living together continues today. Of the school’s 128 students, 31 reside in the dorms during the week.
RSD has had a profound impact on Rochester. Its success has led directly to the development and growth of one of the largest populations, per capita, of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals in the United States. Specifically, the largest per capita populations of working deaf and hard-of-hearing adults between 18 to 64 years old and collegiate age deaf and hard-of-hearing adults between 18 and 25 years old in the U.S.
This critical mass attracts an entire economy — interpreting agencies, and doctors, lawyers and teachers, and other professionals.
“It’s an enormous subculture in plain sight,” says Frank Kruppenbacher, director of public relations at RSD. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
A comprehensive learning community
There are reasons RSD is the source of Rochester’s flourishing Deaf community. It specializes in providing a holistic experience in Deaf culture, including a high-performance education.
There are home-based programs for infants and toddlers. The Early Childhood Center (ECC) offers a center-based program for children 18 months to 3 years old. Parents and immediate family members are also supported with free American Sign Language (ASL) instruction. There is even a shared reading project that provides home instruction for parents to share storybooks with their children. When students become of school age, what they learn is no different from pupils in any public school.
“We follow the NY Regents Learning Standards, our students take the grade three to eight tests, Regents exams, and other assessments to ensure our students are progressing like all other schools,” says RSD Superintendent/CEO Antony McLetchie. “Except, RSD uses a bilingual-bicultural approach to learning. We promote ASL as the first language and English as a second language. Students are taught directly through ASL.”
Therein lies the biggest differentiator between RSD and mainstream schools. Achieving fluency in ASL, like any language, is best accomplished in an immersive environment. Of the approximately 115 full- and part-time staff, 50 are deaf or hard of hearing. This means students can communicate directly with one another and staff without any language barriers.
RSD also provides numerous learning opportunities. Organizations and clubs such as Yearbook and Student Body Government give students a chance to develop leadership skills. There are varsity sports including volleyball, basketball and soccer. Classrooms are small, and emphasize individualized education based on a child’s personal education plan, and they are routinely exposed to deaf role models from the school and greater community.
“Engaging and seeing deaf role models helps our students know they will have a future and there is hope for them,” says McLetchie, who is also deaf, and a Gallaudet University graduate. “RSD prepares our students to enter a world that is very competitive and technologically engaged more than ever before.”
A student experience
Learning is more than collecting facts, figures and explanations. Interactions with peers and surroundings provide a stream of input that shapes young minds and self-perception. For a deaf student, this collective experience is vastly different from his or her hearing-capable peers.
Mainstream schools do provide support resources, but the reality is the experience of a deaf student is different. For deaf or hard-of-hearing students at a traditional school, learning and peer conversations are channeled through an interpreter. Over time, this can have a negative effect on the student.
Bonnie and Mark Benjamin are hearing parents of Dylan, who is hard of hearing. When Dylan started his schooling at a mainstream school in Waterloo, New York, he viewed his hearing cohorts as different. As his awareness matured, his perspective shifted toward seeing himself as the one who is different.
Bonnie recalls Dylan consistently being pulled out of class for education and having an interpreter nearby. He didn’t like it and wished he wasn’t deaf.
Dylan was initially reluctant to attend RSD, but he adjusted quickly. He thrived in basketball, attended conferences and received numerous awards for academics and sports along with scholarships. In 2017, Dylan graduated as Valedictorian and is now attending Gallaudet.
What effect has RSD had on Dylan’s viewpoint on his deafness?
“He owns it,” Bonnie says.
Ron and Julia Rood are both deaf and have three children — Bode, Cayne and Ryleigh — enrolled at RSD. Their other child, Jaron, graduated in 2013 and attended Gallaudet University. When Ron was in high school he attempted the mainstream program during his junior year. In the second quarter his high marks plummeted to failing because his interpreter was not reliable.
“This is never an issue at RSD because direct communication is available without barriers,” Julia says.
Although they live nearby, the Roods are taking advantage of the residential program where students live in dorms Monday through Friday. Tutoring services are available, varsity sports participation becomes easier and students can socialize with each other without any language barriers.
Kaitlin and Kristoffer Whitney are hearing parents of two RSD students. The biggest attraction for them is RSD’s support of children from birth.
“From the day our son attended, his language exploded,” Kaitlin says. “He went from being the only deaf kid in a mainstream program to being in a room with true peers. His entire behavior changed.”
When the Whitney’s daughter was identified shortly after birth as hard of hearing, they were not worried, knowing she’d be in great hands with RSD.
“RSD supports us as a family,” Kaitlin says. “I can’t imagine a better place to put our kids.”
Rochester School for the Deaf (RSD) Fast Facts
- RSD currently supports 128 students from nearly 40 school districts in 15 counties.
- In 2016-2017, RSD’s “Signs for All” community ASL classes enrolled 536 students.
- In the last 10 years, an average of 63 percent of all RSD high school graduates went to college.
- The RSD daily attendance rate is more than 90 percent.
- Portions of the motion picture “The Hammer,” based on the true-life story of Matt Hamill, a three-time NCAA wrestling champion and former UFC fighter, and who is deaf, were filmed at RSD.
Dylan Benjamin, 2017 RSD graduate of RSD and Valedictorian, proudly holds his RSD diploma.
The Benjamin family, Dylan (left), sister Haley, (center standing), Mark, (right) and Bonnie (center sitting), celebrate Dillon’s 2017 RSD graduation.
Marlow Whitney (purple jacket) and her brother Sylvan (baseball cap) play in RSD’s Early Childhood Center’s newly constructed Natural Playground and Outdoor Classroom.
Rochester School for the Deaf (RSD) is situated on the east side of the Genesee River, roughly between Seth Green Drive and Driving Park Avenue on seven picturesque acres overlooking the river.
The 2017 RSD Varsity Soccer Team received accolades as the National Deaf Interascholastic Athletic Association 8-Man Team of-the-Year. RSD athletic teams compete against schools at the local, regional and national level.
Hour of Code
RSD students and staff look forward to their annual Hour of Code Day which celebrates computer science and STEM-related school subjects.
First RSD Day
Principal Brooke Erickson greets her kindergarten through fifth-graders during their 8:25 a.m. morning meeting before classes start for the day. School year 2017-18 is Erickson's first as principal at RSD.
In RSD Early Childhood Programs, a strong visual language foundation can ensure a child's optimal intellectual, social and emotional development, and academic success.