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A proud culture permeates at Rochester School for the Deaf

School’s teachers can begin working with children as early as infancy

For over 141 years, the Rochester School for the Deaf has welcomed a special group of students.

“We’re very proud of a long, storied tradition here of educating Deaf and hard of hearing students,” Antony McLetchie, the private nonprofit’s superintendent and CEO, explains.

McLetchie, who identifies as Deaf, communicated through an American Sign Language interpreter. “Deaf” refers to those who identify themselves as members of the Deaf community, and share a common language—ASL—and culture.

“We have our history, values, traditions and rules,” McLetchie signs.

On the other hand, “deaf” refers to “the audiological measurement of the hearing loss to be determined by the medical professionals,” McLetchie explains.

You might say that a child’s illness helped bring RSD to life. Back in 1868, Carolyn Perkins, the infant daughter of prominent Rochester residents Gilman and Caroline Perkins, suffered what was called an “attack of laryngitis.” It soon became apparent that the illness had deeply affected her hearing.

“It became clear that she was hard of hearing, and deemed deaf,” says Nina Perkins Johnston, one of the Perkinses’ great-great-granddaughters.

At that time, many parents did not place a great deal of importance upon their daughters’ schooling—particularly when the children faced physical challenges—but the Perkins family was different.

“Our great-great-grandparents were committed to her having an education,” Johnston says.

The couple brought Mary Hart Nodine and her fiancé, Zenas Westervelt, two skilled teachers of the deaf, from Maryland to Rochester. While Nodine gave Carolyn private lessons, the Perkinses began generating support for the creation of a local school for deaf children. Their efforts bore fruit on Feb. 4, 1876, when the Western New York Institution for Deaf Mutes was formally established. The following October, the school opened its doors to 20 students on what is now South Avenue. Westervelt was its first superintendent.

The Western New York Institution for Deaf Mutes soon outgrew its digs, and moved to its current St. Paul Street campus. In 1920, the school took on its current name.

RSD now offers a wide range of educational services for deaf and hard of hearing students and their families. Teachers from the school’s Infants, Toddlers and Twos program can begin working with kids soon after they are born.

“The teachers go into the home of the child and parents—they work with both,” McLetchie explains.

Most kids enter RSD’s on-campus pre-K program by age 3. They can then continue their studies until they graduate from the 12th grade. Though curricula meet Common Core standards, all students are given Individualized Education Programs and classes are smaller than those in public schools. ASL is the primary instructional language, though it’s not the only one that students learn or use in class.

“We give them the opportunity to learn ASL and English simultaneously, so that they will be bilingual,” McLetchie explains.

This year, RSD, which serves 21 New York counties, has enrolled 118 students, some of whom stay in its 30-bed dormitory. Of the seven students who graduated last year, four went on to college.

Though RSD’s picturesque campus has a peaceful feel, the school is under pressure from a number of directions. For one thing, its teachers have to be certified in both ASL and their academic subjects, and such individuals are in demand. McLetchie works closely with the teacher training programs at such educational institutions as RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf but has difficulty filling some positions.

“The colleges are not graduating sufficient qualified teachers, and people who do what we do,” McLetchie explains. “We’ve been struggling to find a high school science teacher for a couple years.”

RSD has a very low teacher turnover rate right now, but its need for trained personnel could grow worse.

“In the next couple of years, there’s a large cohort who will be filing for retirement,” McLetchie explains. “That will be a challenge to fill…with certified, highly qualified bilingual instructors.”

RSD also has to shoulder the same sorts of financial burdens that other schools carry but without the assistance that many can call upon. The institution depends heavily on the state for funding. The school districts in which RSD students reside pay for the school’s services and are reimbursed by the New York State Education Department. That revenue stream is vulnerable to Albany’s moods and the state’s budgetary concerns.

“If you compare the last decade, the funding has been flatlined here at RSD,” McLetchie explains.

At the same time, the school’s expenses, particularly personnel costs, have risen. As much as 70 percent of RSD’s annual budget—which comes to $11.2 million this school year—goes to salaries and benefits.

“With the cost of living continually rising, spending on retirements and benefits, that’s certainly not cheap,” McLetchie explains.

In order to stay on top of such expenses, RSD has had to limit teacher raises.

“Some years they may get a 1 percent increase or 2 percent, but it’s not every single year,” McLetchie explains. By contrast, Rochester City School District teachers received a 3.6 percent raise in their 2016 contract.

Despite RSD’s efforts to limit its expenses, the school regularly has to petition Albany for funds.

“School districts can request an increase on an annual basis through property taxes,” McLetchie signs, with a touch of humor. “We have to get on our knees and beg—and my knees are shot.”

That is not to say that RSD doesn’t tap into other sources of funding. The school recently raised $68,137 in private and corporate grants, $52,500 of which will pay for a new playground for its Early Childhood Center. The playground, which will feature a slide built into the side of a hill, an amphitheater and other amenities, could be finished by the end of this year.

Other funding sources arise out of the dedication of longtime supporters of RSD. The late Gilman Perkins, the grandson of Gilman H. Perkins, served on the school’s board of directors and Advisory Council until his death in 2015 at age 88. After he passed away, his children, Gilman C. Perkins, Nina Johnston and Rebecca Perkins, established The Gilman Perkins Fund in his honor.

“We wanted to create a legacy for our father, who had dedicated a lot of his life to the Rochester School for the Deaf,” says Gilman C. Perkins, who lives in Fairfield, Conn.

Since then, the fund has donated $22,670 to RSD, which was used to buy school supplies and winter clothing for students and other goods they needed.

As important as financial matters are, dollars and cents do not reflect the way RSD has affected its students through the years. Bryan Lloyd came to the school in 1967, at age 3.

“I felt like I was a member of a family at RSD,” Lloyd explains. “We were able to communicate with each other through sign language, which would be a problem if we were mainstreamed in a hearing school.”

Lloyd became president of RSD’s student council, founded its Junior National Association of the Deaf club, and graduated from the school. He then went on to become an academic adviser and personal counselor at NTID.

Mike Costanza is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

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