At Metro Deaf School, there’s no such thing as disability


St. Paul Pioneer Press; June 10, 2001©

A piece of gossip is dancing on the fingers of a few eighth-graders.

A boy drums his palm on another boy’s shoulder, waves a hand in front of his face and spells out a few words with his hands. Both boys laugh and chase 14-year-old Rachel McBride to her locker.

They think Rachel has a boyfriend. Rachel shields a packet of photos behind her back and tells the boys, in American Sign Language, they’ve got it all wrong.

“I don’t have a boyfriend,” she says, “but you can’t see the pictures.”

She and six other girls scurry for a more private space to comb through the photos, but the boys aren’t having any of that.

“If you don’t have a boyfriend, why can’t we see the pictures?” a boy asks with his hands. “Why are they so secret?”

The girls look at Rachel as if to say “No way.” Rachel’s green braces shine through her laugh, but she’s standing firm: No boys can see these pictures.

The overhead lights flicker on and off, telling the kids it’s time to get to their next class. The boys give up and jog away. Rachel opens her locker and returns the photos, snapped during a giggle-filled modeling session at one of the girls’ many sleepovers.

As at any campus, school and social life merge at Metro Deaf School in St. Paul. It was one of the country’s first charter schools and is still the only such school in Minnesota, and among just a few nationwide geared exclusively for special education.

The school opened in 1992 and now caters to about 75 students. This year, it graduates its first class of eighth-graders who’ve attended this school since kindergarten. The ceremony is Monday.

Several mainstream school districts offer deaf education programs, but Metro Deaf School has a distinguishing trait: its bilingual, bicultural environment.

Students and staff—five of the school’s 15 teachers can hear—exclusively use American Sign Language and regard English as a second language. Most mainstream school districts with programs for the deaf foster a mix of signing, speaking and a symbol-based blending of the two called cued speech—whichever seems to work best for each student. At Metro Deaf School, everyone speaks the same language, so there are no interpreters, and deaf culture is the norm.

“Everyone’s self-esteem is so strong here,” says David Peacock, whose 5-year-old son, Kevin, just finished kindergarten. “The kids aren’t different. They’re normal.”

The eyes have it

Anyone used to the typical chatter and clatter of a mainstream school can’t help noticing the library-like quiet inside Metro Deaf School. Even in the lunchroom and indoor play area, it’s surprising when the din of silence gives way to an occasional shriek or unconscious gust of laughter.

Days here run much like those at any other school. Student artwork lines the walls. Trophies from the past couple seasons of girls’ basketball fill a display case near the front office. Outside of English and other courses requiring much reading, students are as academically proficient as their counterparts in the hearing world.

But there are all sorts of little touches geared for the deaf. The public address system kicks in with a flashing white light connected to each video monitor, calling everyone’s attention to announcements and daily bulletins delivered in text or sign language. Walls inside the library, computer lab and study areas are 4 feet high, allowing people to communicate with sign language across several rooms. Of classrooms with more than two or three students, desks are arranged in L shapes or half-circles — when a student asks the teacher a question, everyone sees it.

The absence of speech accounts for only part of the resounding silence. In perhaps the greatest departure from the average mainstream classroom, students here are largely attentive to their teachers and class work.

“Deaf kids love coming to school. Holidays are a drag,” says Dyan Sherwood, Metro Deaf School’s director. That’s not simply the hopeful sentiment of a cheerleading administrator—every student approached for this story agreed with her.

Friendships among many of these kids started at summer camps for the deaf. Sleepovers are a favorite pastime among deaf youth, and you can tell when someone is hosting a Friday night get-together by the handful of sleeping bags scattered near the lockers and office.

“The teachers are good and I like everyone here,” Norb Biderman, an eighth-grader, says through an interpreter. “I would be bored at home.”

The deaf leading the deaf

Sherwood, who has normal hearing, co-founded the school after nearly 20 years in deaf education with the St. Paul School District. Metro Deaf School opened in St. Paul’s Lowertown, across from the Farmer’s Market. The school started with a dozen students, from kindergarten through seventh grade.”It was like a one-room schoolhouse,” says Sherwood, who scavenged her first textbooks and furniture largely through yard sales and hand-me-downs from other campuses.

Metro Deaf School moved several years ago to a frontage road filled with industrial offices, along Highway 52, just west of the St. Paul Airport.

Sherwood, who turns 50 in July, says she never noticed deaf people until attending Illinois State University during the early ’70s, when she lived with a family providing foster care to deaf children. Sherwood changed her academic focus from journalism to deaf education and, in 1974, began teaching in St. Paul’s deaf program.

The early ’90s introduced bilingual, bicultural focus to deaf education, contrasting the longstanding regard of deafness as a disability. Modern educators theorized deaf children could best learn with American Sign Language at the forefront of their education and communication, with English taught through print rather than speech.

“It was like a lightbulb went on for me,” says Sherwood, whose enlightenment coincided with the nationwide sanctioning of charter schools.

She and Marcia Passi, a deaf educator who founded the school with Sherwood, talked about how their new school would embrace all of the mannerisms of deaf culture that seem strange and unwelcome in the hearing world. Passi is no longer with the school.

“Deaf people touch each other all the time, to get people’s attention, and in Minnesota, you don’t just touch someone,” Sherwood says. “And deaf kids bang on tables all day. If you do that in a mainstream classroom, you probably get sent to the office.”

Role modeling is integral to Sherwood’s mission and the success of Metro Deaf School. Younger students learn by watching older deaf students, who in turn see themselves as mentors. With staff made up largely of the deaf, Sherwood says, students see the potential in themselves.”

Elementary-age kids never saw deaf teachers or deaf coaches where I’d come from, and that piece of belonging is so important to the deaf community,” says Sherwood, whose office nameplate spells out “Dyan” in four wooden blocks of American Sign Language.

The St. Paul School District still operates its own programs for deaf children and wouldn’t sponsor a competing charter school, so Metro Deaf School went through the Forest Lake School District for licensing.

At last count, this past December, there were 230 people—from babies to 21-year-olds—receiving some level of service through the St. Paul School District’s deaf education program.

Still, Sherwood says, St. Paul is an ideal locale for Metro Deaf School, which caters to students from more than 30 metro-area school districts. The districts pay for the education and transportation students who would 7otherwise attend mainstream schools closer to home.

“I had junior high kids asking ‘Will I be hearing when I’m an adult,’ ” Sherwood says of her days teaching the deaf at mainstream schools. “My hearing teachers assimilate easily into the deaf culture, but I want these kids to know that choosing not to speak spoken English doesn’t make them any less of a person.”

Parents do homework

Justin Barlow has his life all figured out. According to an illustrated “life map” he created earlier this year, 13-year-old Justin will attend Gallaudet University in Washington state, get married in 2012, watch the birth of his son John in 2014, become a carpenter the following year, go to a “retirement center” in 2086 and “die peacefully” in 2089.

His parents, Anne and Dave Barlow, are simply happy Justin foresees a long, happy future. Born with profound hearing loss, Justin struggled in a mainstream pre-school, where teachers characterized him as a sullen loner. The assessment didn’t jive with the fun, gregarious boy his parents knew at home.

Officials in the Maple Grove school district encouraged the Barlows to keep Justin in an oral-centered environment, which initially seemed, to his mother, as “the path of least resistance, the easiest for everybody.”

“I was in denial for years about Justin not being able to talk,” she says.

After learning of the St. Paul charter school forming on a foundation of American Sign Language, the Barlows placed Justin among its first class of students and committed themselves to learn the language along with their son. They successfully sued the Maple Grove School District to cover Justin’s education and transportation costs.

“We were a little leery,” Anne Barlow says. “But Justin was already 5 and had no real language of his own, so we figured we had nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

Dave Barlow took American Sign Language courses through St. Paul Technical College (Metro Deaf School also offers courses for parents).

“I wanted to know the sign, not have Justin come home and teach me,” he says.

“It’s threatening for hearing parents,” Sherwood says. “If you choose this school, you choose this culture.”

By the end of his first year at Metro Deaf School, Justin had nearly caught his peers in language skills. Socially, his mom says, “he just blossomed.”

Small class sizes and a tight peer group more than make up for the hour-long bus ride each way, says Anne Barlow, who calls the school “a blessing.” Justin’s parents have learned sign language through classes and everyday immersion, and the family, including Justin’s 9-year-old sister Molly, who has normal hearing, attends a church for the deaf.

Mike Hatfield, who is deaf, scoured four states to find the right school for his two deaf daughters. The family moved from Omaha, Neb., to Apple Valley a year ago so the girls, ages 3 and 6, could attend Metro Deaf School.

“When I looked at the kids here, I could tell in my heart, in my gut, that this was right,” says Hatfield, who spoke through an interpreter. Before committing to the move, he visited the school four times over three years and came away impressed by the students’ attitudes and behavior and the school’s underlying culture. Hatfield’s wife is also deaf.

Paula Werner appreciates that everything at Metro Deaf School is accessible to her 5-year-old son, Kevin.

“He’s not excluded from anything,” Werner says. “He’s not going to have that the rest of his life, so let him have that now.”Learning while playing

Randy Shank steps into the role of Alex Trebek, hosting a game of “Jeopardy” with his fifth-grade social studies class. It’s boys versus girls, and the questions are previews of what these six students will see on an upcoming test.

The boys choose “Places” for 400 points. The question: “Where does the Oregon Trail start?”

Shannon Boelter raises her hand but hesitates. Her teammate, Samantha Siedschlag, bangs her hands and forearms on her desktop. The boys get excited. Shannon asks for quiet—too much visual clutter around her—but says she doesn’t know the answer.

Trent Lukin taps Jonas Virnig on the shoulder, lifts his desktop to shield the girls’ eyes from his hands, then signs the answer to Jonas.

He guesses Mississippi. “No, wait,” he says with his hands. “It’s Missouri.”The boys get 400 points. Samantha pounds her hands on her desk. “No fair,” she says with a hand symbol, slumping back into her seat with a huff.

Next question: “What was the capitol city of the South during the Civil War?”

Tommy Mulally raps both hands to the sides of his head as if they were a hummingbird’s wings, saying “I know it! I know it!” He spells out “Richmond” with his hand, then pumps both fists in the air when the teacher says he’s right. Next question: “Name three original Northern states.”

“Do I have to spell the whole thing?” Shannon asks her teacher.

“You have to come close,” Stark says.

“I hate spelling,” says Shannon, who can’t name three states in time. The boys miss a crack at stealing the points, so Samantha, who’s just about hysterical with anticipation, finally gets her opening.”Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island,” she signs, then jumps in the air, knocking over her chair.

An ear to the future

Of this year’s 12 graduates, half are headed to the State Academy for the Deaf in Faribault, four are going to mainstream schools and two are headed to deaf-centered schools outside Minnesota. Sherwood worries about the kids who are mainstreaming, particularly the two set to attend a high school close to home, with no deaf program. There, they will rely on interpreters in each classroom.

Katie Meisel plays alongside hearing kids on basketball, softball and soccer teams run through the City of Woodbury, so she isn’t too concerned about her transition this fall, as a ninth-grader, to Lake Junior High School.

“It might be hard to make friends, but I already know some kids,” she says through an interpreter. “I’m a little nervous, but I’m excited, too.”

“I don’t know what’s going to be tougher for them, the academics or the social part of it,” Sherwood says. “Either way, it’s going to be a big adjustment.”

It’s also an inevitable one. There are 2 million deaf people in the U.S. interacting, to various degrees, with the hearing world. (American Sign Language is the third most-used language in the country, well behind English and Spanish).

Metro Deaf School has no formal curriculum addressing issues such as what to do when approached by a police officer or how to best communicate with people who don’t understand American Sign Language. But the school is taking steps to prepare students. An interpreter and speech therapist were on staff for the first time this past year and Sherwood has spoken with Twin Cities Academy about sending students there for some classes.

Metro Deaf School’s board is exploring partnering with another school, developing a parent-infant program for early education and setting up a satellite campus for kids living on the western fringes of the Twin Cities. Sherwood also wants to foster more deaf leadership, inside and outside of school.

“Deaf education has always been and always will be controversial because there are so many methods and ideas for how to teach these kids,” Sherwood says.

“Educators are always looking for results. But sometimes we lose sight of how much a sense of belonging contributes to good results. Deaf people are equal to hearing people. They might have different roles, but they’re just as important, and our students believe that.”