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School’s Founding in February 1876 Laid the Foundation for Rochester’s Landmark Deaf Community
By Antony A. L. McLetchie, Superintendent/CEO, Rochester School for the Deaf

When City of Rochester Mayor George Clarkson held a public meeting on February 3, 1876, with citizens concerned about the formal education of children in the local and regional communities who were deaf and hard of hearing, little did anyone in that room realize what their actions would eventually evolve into.

At that meeting were, among others, prominent Rochesterians Gilman H. and Caroline Perkins whose deaf daughter Carolyn was receiving private instruction from Mary Hart Nodine. She was a skilled teacher of the deaf who was brought to Rochester by the Perkins with her fiancé Zenas Freeman Westervelt, a fellow teacher, from Frederick, Maryland. Lessons for young Carolyn were given in the Perkins’ home on East Avenue near Alexander Street, in a portion of what is now the Genesee Valley Club.

Shortly after his arrival, Westervelt started to collect names of deaf children in Western and Central New York State who were not in school. At that time one of the most accessible schools for deaf children was New York School for the Deaf (a.k.a. Fanwood) in New York City, where at least five Rochester area children attended. Westervelt believed that Rochester would be a suitable location for a new school for deaf children. This inspired Caroline Perkins to first suggest to her husband that such a school be established.

Gilman Perkins then approached his fellow local business owners and associates as well as City of Rochester government officials in order to promote the idea of a school for deaf children in Rochester. This led to Mayor Clarkson’s February 3rd public meeting where all in attendance agreed, in principle, that a school named the “Western New York Institution for Deaf Mutes” be created. A board of trustees to govern the school was also formalized that day. The following day, February 4, 1876, the board adopted a Constitution and By-Laws and elected Westervelt as school superintendent to formally establish the school.

On May 15, 1876, the new school was placed under control of the State Education Department, supervised by the State Board of Charities. This provided the school with operating funds from the state, while buildings, student and other funds were provided by benevolent individuals, businesses, and organizations in the Greater Rochester area. An existing group of buildings at 70 South St. Paul Street (now South Avenue), at the corner of Court Street, was quickly prepared to welcome the first twenty deaf students and their teachers and support staff.

The Western New York Institution for Deaf Mutes opened its doors on October 4, 1876. It quickly outgrew its first location from twenty to eighty-seven students and by September 1878 started to occupy its present campus at 1545 St. Paul Street. In 1920 the schools’ name was changed to Rochester School for the Deaf.

Fast forward to 1965. The Federal government that year was seeking an appropriate, mainstream university setting to place the newly authorized Public Law 89-36 National Technical Institute for the Deaf, a technical and professional post-secondary program for deaf and hard of hearing college-bound high school students.

This caught the attention of Rochester philanthropist Hettie Shumway who, at that time, was a dual trustee of Rochester Institute of Technology and Rochester School for the Deaf. She was well aware of the success that some RSD graduates had in attending and earning degrees from RIT and its predecessor institutions from as early as 1921.

Shumways’ advocacy for the eventual placement of NTID at RIT led to a rapid expansion of what was already a vibrant and active deaf community fostered by Rochester School for the Deaf in the city and surrounding community. NTID would bring to Rochester countless numbers of deaf and hard of hearing college-age students, and with them specially-trained post-secondary educators and support services professionals. NTID is now one of nine colleges at RIT and for 48 years has provided deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing students with career-focused technical and professional opportunities at a level not available at any other university in the world.

One hundred and forty years after the founding of Rochester School for the Deaf, the impact of RSD and RIT/NTID on the metro area of Rochester, NY, is proudly unique. Overall it has a higher proportion of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals at 3.7 percent of persons as opposed to the national average of 3.5 percent. It also has the largest per capita population of working age (18-64) deaf and hard of hearing persons in the country as well as the largest per capita population of college age (18-25) persons in the United States.

The tome of Rochester’s Deaf community is growing and ever-evolving. At the center of our unique community of language, education and culture is RSD – a special school inspired by a little deaf girl, her forward-thinking parents and homeschool teachers. It still stands and proudly serves families with deaf and hard of hearing children and young adults from school districts all across Western and Central New York State.
In October of this year Rochester School for the Deaf will formally celebrate its 140th year of continuous service.

Antony A. L. McLetchie is the 7th and current superintendent/CEO of Rochester School for the Deaf. The RSD Board of Directors elected him to the position in April 2015 to succeed Dr. Harold Mowl, Jr., who retired in June 2015, after 25 years as school leader. RSD is a private, State-supported school with 116 students attending from 38 school districts in 12 counties. RSD is a member of the 4201 Schools Association of New York State.

 

 

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