My experience at a deaf school.

Before I start this post, I just want to make a little precaution that this is being written by a twenty-something guy who did not learn a single word till he was three years old, learned ASL as the first language and was stuck with a fifth or lower grade English level all the way till high school before finally getting out of the incredibly long maze to take control of English language without being batted down with some red ink from my teachers.

I don’t have a fancy phd initials next to my name and I’m just a guy whose high school senior picture can be found on the same wall along with my both parents’ black/white senior pictures frames. Yes, we all graduated from the same school at Illinois School for the Deaf. It is one of the many common things we share together, considering the fact we don’t share a single same blood droplet. Yes, that’s right, not a single drop and the reason for that is because I was born in Korea and got adopted. Our deafness and love hold us stronger than the bricks that form the Great Wall of China.

So, now you’re familiar with my little background and that I don’t claim to be an authority on subjects that talk about how to improve education and school system. I figure it’s time for somebody to talk a bit about deaf schools after having attended one and the only one since I was three years old, then upon graduation, went to Gallaudet University my first year before transferring to RIT for a change of major to Information Science and most importantly, having been around Deaf people all my life and reading tons of articles/blogs on issues that affect us as Deaf people.

If there’s one topic that is too familiar in the deaf community other than cochlear implant, which I would say is on par with abortion or stem cell research is the closing of deaf institutions. Every time when a deaf school has to be closed, it touches every Deaf alumnus’ heart. Deaf schools are like a second home after spending a big chunk of time there; for some people, it can be as long as 18 years since they were born. It also means when a deaf school has to go, ASL lost another home too. Because deaf schools are usually where most deaf kids come to learn their natural language. So, it heartily affects everybody who attended or graduated from deaf schools.

I’m not sure if this is true but someone told me that in the state of Florida, any babies or kids who are pathologically identified to have a hearing loss, they are placed or sent to Florida School for the Deaf/Blind (FSDB). It’s one reason that FSDB has one of the largest enrollment numbers among deaf schools in the United States. Well, I think that’s a great idea. I’m not sure about being automatically placed as I need to confirm this research but at least I think the state should require parents with deaf babies to visit the deaf school and get all the information, more screening tests for their kids, and actually meet people who have many years of experience working directly with deaf kids. I’d imagine they offer all kinds of advice to parents that they SHOULD know before making a decision for the future of their kids. Too often, parents either don’t know about deaf schools or are being told that deaf schools are for retarded children. If they still feel strongly about getting a cochlear implant for their kids, that is fine as long as they’ve heard both sides: us and the doctors/world at large. It’d be wonderful if all states could use this kind of policy.

Another thing about the decline in enrollment numbers, I think, has been the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It’s really a double-edged sword because while we want equal opportunity in employment and no discrimination, public schools are forced to let deaf students enroll and provide interpreters. Naturally, parents would want their kids to be close to their home so they’d pick mainstreamed schools over deaf schools. But the problem with these public schools are some of them have zero experience or have never worked with deaf kids before so they’re clueless and just place them in one deaf class because they couldn’t afford an interpreter for each individual deaf student. They let or hire a teacher who claims s/he is fluent in ASL just because they had a childhood friend who was deaf or took an ASL class for one year back in college. That’s why I support the idea that parents should visit residential schools first before they make any decision.
One issue we all know too well about deaf schools is the lack of education. Well, there’s no denying that it’s not true. But it’s not really their fault that they have a lower education standards than other public schools. Numbers play a huge part here. Not a long ago, I read something really insightful called the 80-20 rule. An Italian sociologist and economist named Vilfredo Pareto was the one who came up with the pattern of the 80-20. While studying microeconomnics, he observed that 80% of housing income in Italy was received by 20% of the Italian population. A more broadly definition is 80% of the consequences stem from 20% of the causes. It is known as the Pareto principle.

You’re probably going “huh?” I was just like you so I found some more practical examples. In sports, 20% percent of its top players produce 80% of the scoring. In business, 80% of the sales are made by 20 percent of the sales team. Even with our work; 20% percent of our efforts produce 80% of the results. 20% of Wikipedia users produce 80% of the content.

Beginning to see the pattern? this can even apply to the recent Gallaudet protest. 20% of the protesters report 80% of the latest news (the other 20% is probably Gallaudet’s biased PR, Washington Post and other biased media). 20% of the protesters help organize/lead/rally the 80% of the protest. Even in salaries, 20% of top paid positions get 80% of the budget.

Remember, it is just a theory, not the perfect universal answer or pattern to everything but it can help understand why certain things happen and explain the numbers. So, how is this related to the lack of education at deaf schools? Okay, let’s say 20% of students make up 80% of the school’s academic success. Enrollment numbers are very small at school, like at ISD, there is about 100 students in high school so that means there would be about twenty students who are academic. Now, in mainstreamed public schools, they usually have a thousand students or even two thousand, so they’ll have 200 students or 400 students who are academically driven. With those higher numbers, public schools can afford to offer more classes such as AP courses. They’ll have students who can take AP calculus and put about twenty students in the class and others in different courses like English. You can’t expect to put all 20 deaf students in one AP class and probably only a few can take it. To principals, it’s not a good use of teachers’ time and money to teach two or three students in one class. Like I said at the beginning, it is all about the numbers and the lower the numbers are, the lower the education level is going to be. It’s as simple as that.

So, where’s the solution in this? This is going to sound simplistic. Make an exchange program with mainstreamed schools. Establish a partnership with them. Send deaf students to public schools to take advanced courses that deaf schools don’t or cannot offer. At the same time, public schools can send their students to deaf school for ASL class for those who are interested in learning ASL and perhaps want to become a deaf teacher in the future.

How did I know about this? because I was in the program before. My high school, ISD, had a partnership with Jacksonville High School and I took an AP math class and physics there. Other deaf students also took psychology or history. JHS also had their own ASL class for those students who are first year and second year ASL class is taught at my school for deeper interaction with deaf students. I remember how those ASL classes were always seem to be full of hot girls and I had a crush on one girl who was an all-state volleyball player. Also, one girl from the class is now an English teacher and another girl is taking up deaf education to become a teacher too. I would say this exchange program is a win-win situation.

The only thing I’m going to add is a tutor program for those deaf students who go to public schools. If they wanted to take classes at public schools, they’d be required to attend tutor sessions because they will receive tons of homework. They couldn’t meet teachers after school or end of classes because they would miss their transports to take them back to deaf school. Also, tutors know ASL and would be able to explain concepts more clearly and assist with whatever questions they may have.

I’m going to talk about sports now. I’m not very tall or big but I was fortunate to be a starter on varsity teams (football, basketball, and track). If I went to another school, I would never been a starter and would be lucky to make a varsity in one sport, not three. Sports can play a big recruiter tool; look no further than those college teams that offer big scholarships to top athletes in the nation. If there’s going to be one thing that deaf schools can attract students from mainstreamed schools, it’s the sports. I personally know two guys who transferred from mainstreamed schools to our school so they can be starters instead of benchwarmers at their schools. Who would want to be on a bench all the time knowing you could be a starter at another school? Coaches and players find difficulty communicating with deaf players and they just find their way back to the bench and be a fan supporter. That is one thing deaf schools have an
“advantage” over other schools. However, it’s the scheduling that is entirely a different story.

We play in a very tough football conference called Western Illinois Valley Conference that consists of twelve teams and is split in two divisions: North and South. This conference is one of the toughest conferences in the state of Illinois and three or four teams would be ranked in top ten every year and has brought state championships for many years. Their enrollment numbers are growing while ours would stay the same or decline. Also, smaller schools would consolidate together to boost their enrollment or to solve their small budget problems by merging together. For us, no, we’re definitely not going to see more deaf babies being born. Their schools are becoming bigger while we stay the same or smaller. So, it’s no brainer that we always end up with the worst record.

In my freshmen year, we were 0-9 but was awarded a forfeit win because IHSA busted one school for letting an over-aged kid play. The next year, we’re 0-9 again, junior year same again, 0-9. So, my first three years of playing high school football were combined 0-27. I’m not going to count that forfeit win to make myself better. It’s no fun coming in the game, knowing you’re already doomed. There is probably no worse feeling than that. It really sucked. But during our senior year, having the largest class in five years and growing up together during those rough three years and a revamped new offense system that showed a lot of reverses and fakes with two wingmen, we finally WON a game. That was against Meredosia, which had about the same number of students as we did. We went on a winning streak, defeating Routt Catholic (our biggest upset win), Virginia, Northwestern in our homecoming game, before losing to Triopia, which was a state-ranked team. We were 5-3 and had to beat Greenfield, a perennial playoffs team to earn a playoff bid in our last game and guess what? we beat them! Then we played against a powerhouse football team, El Paso, that had almost 400 students versus our 130 students. Needless to say, we got beat badly. As for basketball? for all four years I’ve played, we’ve never had a winning season, so there’s not much to say about that.

So, what’s my point in all those? Make deaf schools independent of those non-sense conferences. I’m jealous of other deaf schools that find a way to play a few deaf schools in their schedule. Model Secondary School for the Deaf (MSSD) in Washington, DC often play against deaf school teams during their seasons including flying to California and Texas. Some deaf schools host deaf-schools-only tournaments. My dream would to create a new kind of conference for deaf school teams if that’s ever possible, so those so-called Deaf National Team of the Years honors will be legitimate instead of questionable. My fondest sports memories came from playing against deaf teams in Central School Sports for the Deaf (CSSD) tournaments. Our enrollment numbers are similar, we share same disability, we can actually talk to each other after games and make friends. I never did that with any hearing teams, so to speak. I’m not trying to sound as if I am against hearing people but it’s just the way things are. You can’t help it if you wanted to.

I realize this post is becoming very long and if you’re still reading this, well, I’m glad. I realize this is more of a personal experience than specific ways/suggestions to improve deaf schools. One more thing I’m going to bring up is the people or staff who work at deaf schools. I really think that there should be at least 50% or more deaf people working or teaching at deaf schools. This ensures that deaf kids will have an exposure to deaf role models and for deaf people to have a job. I’m not against hearing people who want to work with deaf kids and be a teacher but there are hundreds of schools elsewhere that they can get a teaching job while deaf people would prefer to teach at deaf schools where they can use ASL and without interpreters. That’s not saying deaf people cannot teach at public schools as they can use an intepreter but I don’t think hearing students would be as responsive if they had to use an interpreter to talk to the deaf teacher. It’s almost like hiring an English teacher to teach a Spanish class and use Spanish interpreters to translate English to Spanish. In dorms, deaf residental advisors can share stories or teach deaf kids how to get through life and in the real world as a Deaf person when oralism or cochlear implants didn’t work for them. I spent 15 years at ISD and all of my role models were Deaf, no hearing, to be honest.

That goes my post with my experience at a deaf school along with some suggestions that can help make deaf schools better. What I would really like to see is any hearing parents with a deaf child should go to visit a deaf residential school first before they make a decision. If they feel strongly about getting cochlear implant for their child, that is okay as long as they’ve considered all options but I don’t want to see them to feel that by not getting one means their child won’t be successful and cannot function in the world as we know it. I think that the sooner we realize or accept our deafness, the lesser we are going to struggle with our identities and where we belong to, also the sooner we can get on with learning. Deaf children would have developed a foundation in language development through ASL and be able to express their feelings or thoughts without spending tons of time in front of a mirror trying to pronounce between D and T. I know it’s hard for hearing people to see through that because they want to see their children as normal as they can be but they are normal, just a little different like everyone else is different.

I don’t regret for a single moment that I went to a deaf school at Illinois School for the Deaf and I’m looking forward to our 10 years reunion coming in 2009. It’ll be great to see both of my parents’ frames and mine on the wall one more time.