FREDERICK --Since its founding in 1868, the Maryland School for the Deaf has been cloistered from the wider world. Students walk a picturesque campus of green lawns and old brick buildings, speak American Sign Language and enjoy their own culture. . Now the school is considering a radical step that could end that segregation: a proposal to accept a limited number of hearing students.
The school's superintendent says it should think about admitting hearing students to ensure that enrollment in years to come will remain large enough to be viable. Others say the deaf community and its culture could only become stronger if more hearing people were exposed to it. The school's board of directors is setting up a committee to explore the proposal over the next year.
To take such a leap would be seen as plowing new ground in deaf education, and could be controversial. Only a few other schools for the deaf admit hearing students.
But more young deaf children are getting implants that allow them some degree of hearing and, unlike a century ago, the majority of deaf students are going to regular public schools. The trend worries some educators who wonder if deaf culture and American Sign Language will dwindle away as fewer children attend schools for the deaf and fewer learn to sign.
James Tucker, the school's superintendent, sees its rich tradition of experimentation as a backdrop for trying something new to attract more students.
The state-run school was one of the first to adopt a standard public school curriculum and one of the first to teach in a bilingual environment - students learn to sign and also to read and write English. Classes are offered to help deaf students who want to learn to speak.
"So I see hearing students as part of the tradition here. We always want to be on the cutting edge," Tucker, who is deaf, said through an interpreter. But only if parents, students, teachers and the board feel comfortable with the proposal will the school go ahead with it, Tucker said. Even then, the school would have to go to the General Assembly to ask for a change in its charter.
With campuses in Frederick and Columbia, the school serves about 500 deaf and hard of hearing children from infants to 12th-graders. In a high school on the Frederick campus, students can stay in dorms during the week, but most are day students. The classrooms are very quiet, with teachers signing to classes of eight or 10 students. While some students speak and sign, others only sign. Much of what is being taught by the teacher is projected on a screen in the front of the classroom in English.
If the school did open its doors to hearing students, school officials say, most would likely be children of deaf parents - children who likely learned American Sign Language before they learned to speak. Senior Michelle Lapides, for instance, is from a family with several generations of deaf individuals. Her hearing sister, she said, might have liked to come to the school. Tucker's family is similarly mixed. He and his wife are deaf; they have one hearing child and one deaf child.
Hearing children already operating in a deaf world are likely to be the first to sign up, Tucker said.
He said he gets occasional inquiries from hearing high school students around the state who are studying American Sign Language and wish to immerse themselves for a year or two to become more competent.
But Tucker hopes to capture the attention of parents of children with cochlear implants - electrical devices implanted in the inner ear that allow deaf people some degree of hearing. The school already enrolls students with the implants, but many more such children are attending regular public schools.
While Tucker is not opposed to the use of the implants - some deaf people are staunchly opposed - he said he believes that some schools are not adequately preparing those students. Some students with implants, he said, appear to speak beautifully but have difficulty hearing and their academic skills have suffered. They come to his school far behind academically, having failed in regular public schools. "Academics and speaking skills are not the same," he said.
He believes some children with cochlear implants would benefit from learning sign language and from the deaf culture in the school. He said that children who learn American Sign Language, or any language, before age 3 are more likely to be successful academically later in life.
"If we had hearing students here, maybe parents [of children with cochlear implants] would say, 'Maybe I will leave my deaf children here,'" Tucker said.
While the school's review of Tucker's proposal has just begun, several students said they support the idea. Lapides, 17, who has attended the Frederick campus since she was very young, said through an interpreter that when first confronted with the concept, she thought it "drastic." She has since changed her mind.
"It would be nice to be connected, to build bridges between the deaf and the hearing community," she said.
Lapides said she has been in small classes her whole life and would welcome additional students who could provide more academic competition. The school has given her a place where she is comfortable. "I can say anything I want to say," she said.
Darrin Smith, a senior, has spent the past three years at the school. He came because he wanted to be immersed in deaf culture, but he supports the idea of adding hearing students who he believes would get the opportunity to better understand the deaf world.
Some others support the idea as well.
"I think it is brilliant, innovative and hopefully a model that other people will take note of," said Leeanne Seaver, executive director of Hands & Voices, a family support organization that tries to be an unbiased source of information for parents of deaf children.
The idea of accepting hearing children at a school for the deaf is not entirely new. Gallaudet University, the college for the deaf in Washington, now accepts a small percentage of hearing students. The Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Philadelphia is beginning to admit hearing children in its preschool. Joseph Fishgrund, the headmaster, said the experiment is going well.
"As there are an increasing number of children with cochlear implants, those children's needs and their parents' wishes require more of a spoken language environment," he said.
But no other school has taken the concept as far as New York City's public school for the deaf, No. 47. Officials accepted hearing students because the enrollment was dwindling and they wanted to keep the school open.
"Our goal is to preserve the American Sign Language and the deaf culture," said Martin Florsheim, the principal of the high school, through an interpreter. "The only way we can preserve that [culture] is to train hearing students to sign."
After only a few years, the school now has more hearing children than deaf children - a proportion it accepts as the price of keeping the school going, he said.
The principals of the New York school say the integration of the hearing and deaf world is remarkable. In the elementary grades, each classroom has one hearing and one deaf teacher. When students are together in a group, only sign language is used. But teachers often try to combine the two languages. For instance, they may read a book aloud, first in ASL and then in English. The children move between the two worlds with ease, and few visitors can tell the difference between hearing and deaf children, said Rebecca Marshall, principal of the elementary and middle grades.
The Maryland School for the Deaf is not yet seeing the same enrollment difficulties as other schools around the country, according to Barbara Raimondo, president of its board of directors. She says Maryland has become something of a magnet for the deaf because many deaf students are drawn to Gallaudet. Many stay in the area afterward for jobs in the federal government, which is more open to hiring deaf people, she said. If their children are deaf, they might go to the Maryland School for the Deaf.
The road ahead in deciding whether to admit hearing students could be long and bumpy. Tucker believes parents are likely to be concerned about the effect on their children. One parent has asked him if a hearing child would be allowed to be quarterback of the football team - a concern, he said, because deaf children don't have as many opportunities as hearing children.
And there could be difficult issues about what language would be allowed to be spoken when. For instance, would it be acceptable for two hearing students to chat away in English when in a group of students who can only sign?
But Tucker said he believes the school community could work out answers to such questions, and says the proposal deserves serious consideration as the Maryland School for the Deaf looks to its future.
"I want to be proactive," he said.