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For Deaf, A School of Their Own

By CHRISTINA K. COSDON, St. Petersburg Times
Published: July 31, 2003


For the first time, Pinellas County parents of deaf children have an option for the children beyond mainstreaming.

Blossom Montessori School for the Deaf opens Monday in Largo for preschool through fifth grade, with before- and after-school care. The school teaches deaf and hard of hearing children, as well as hearing siblings and children of deaf adults.

Julie Church, executive director of the Deaf and Hearing Connection of Tampa Bay, said she has enrolled her 10-year-old deaf son in the school’s fifth grade.

“I wish this had come along years ago,” Church said. “The nearest school for the deaf was the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine (a state-supported boarding school for preschoolers to 12th-graders) – for us, three hours away.

“The only options were to keep your child in our school district or move to St. Augustine. Having a private school here offers a choice parents haven’t had before.”

Communication at Blossom will be through American Sign Language. Hearing siblings who attend the school can choose to be taught in sign language or spoken English, but their curriculum will include sign language.

Julie Rutenberg, 26, a Clearwater native, is the school’s founder and director. She said the notion of starting a school for the deaf was formed while she was in college.

“I worked as an intern in the Pinellas school system and saw how the deaf kids were falling behind,” Rutenberg said. “There were first-graders who couldn’t tell you their alphabet and fifth- graders who couldn’t tell you the days of the week.”

“I had gone to a Montessori school growing up and really benefited by it,” she said. “I thought it would be neat to offer the same educational program for deaf children.”

Montessori emphasizes learning through all five senses. Classes typically place children in three-year age groups, forming communities in which older children share their knowledge with the younger ones. Children learn at their own pace and from activities of their choosing. Reading, language, math, speech training, sign language and other skills are tailored to the individual child.

For now, the school will share space with Annsworth Montessori School at 5990 142nd Ave. N.

Rutenberg said she plans to start building a school next year.

Blossom has an office and three classrooms at Annsworth. Tuition is $700 a month for kindergarten through fifth grade and $500 for preschoolers. The school has been approved by the state for the McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program.

Eight students are now enrolled, and up to 20 will be accepted this year.

A spokeswoman for the worldwide Montessori Foundation, based in Sarasota, said there is no other Montessori school for the deaf in Florida.

The foundation’s consultants have reviewed the school curriculum and found that it meets state standards, Rutenberg said.

All three of Erik and Lisa Cook’s children will attend Blossom. Two are hearing impaired.

“This is something we hope is a bright future for the kids,” said Erik Cook, an executive assistant manager at a Clearwater Walgreens. “What I really like is that the parents are encouraged to be involved. We’re required to go to the school, help set guidelines for each child and meet those goals. I can’t wait.”

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