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School for the deaf helps students blossom

By ALEXANDRA CALDWELL, Tampa Bay Newspapers
Published: February 25, 2009


CLEARWATER – Ivy Richardson came to Blossom Montessori School for the Deaf in Clearwater when she was 7. She could not spell her last name and was years behind her age group in school.

Ivy is deaf and had a hard time communicating and learning in a traditional classroom at Cross Bayou Elementary School in Pinellas Park. Now, as a seventh-grader, Ivy excels in math and loves to learn, said her mother, Stacy, of Largo.

Ivy was one of the school’s first students, and she attributes her academic success to the school. She grew up at Blossom, she signed.

Blossom Montessori School for the Deaf is one of two Montessori schools for deaf people in the United States and the only one in Florida, said Carol Downing, associate director of the school. The school is for kids ages 2 1/2 through 15 who are deaf, hard of hearing, those with cochlear implants or hearing kids who have a parent or sibling who is deaf.

‘A lot of deaf schools have deaf students with hearing parents, which most of them have, but we bring in the CODAs (children of deaf adults,) the hard of hearing students, and we have kids with the cochlear implants because we know if it breaks, they’re deaf,’ Downing said. ‘And the panic that can set in for a child who is not ready to be deaf, everyone here is sensitive to that instead of being plunked down into a public school where no one understands the trauma of that child all of a sudden losing everything they’re dependent on, whether it’s a dead battery or a broken gizmo.’

Stacy first discovered her daughter was deaf when Ivy was about 2 years old, Stacy said. When she began public school, Stacy said Ivy felt extreme frustration because she couldn’t communicate or understand the lessons very well. Then she transferred to Blossom.

‘I immediately noticed improvements in her academic progress, for here was a school that was equipped to handle her needs,’ Stacy said. ‘Her needs include the use of effective communication, which for her is American Sign Language. I also firmly believe in the Montessori approach to teaching. Ivy’s language skills have improved immensely.’

The school was founded in 2003 by Julie Rutenberg, now director of the school. She had taken an American Sign Language interpretive language course from Downing at St. Petersburg College and saw the need for a school when she did her contact hours with deaf kids in the public school system.

According to the Blossom literature, the Tampa Bay area is home of the fourth largest deaf concentration in the United States and 37 percent of children with minimal hearing fail at least one grade.

The teachers at Blossom all speak in both American Sign Language and spoken English. As a Montessori kid herself, Rutenberg realized the benefits deaf kids would get from the hands-on, tactile learning of the Montessori method.

In the Montessori classroom, words and concepts have physical objects that students can pick up and hold. Math is learned with beads – loose beads for 1 to 10, groups of 10 beads strung on a wire, 10 groups of 10 beads strung into a square, and 1,000 beads strung into a cube.

‘If you’re deaf, then everything you learn is with your eyes,’ said Maria Kadau, director of development at the school. ‘It’s very visual, so it’s good to enhance their visual senses with what they’re learning.’

The children up to age 6 are all in one classroom, then they go the 6- to 9-year-old classroom, then onto the 9- to 12-year-old classroom, and finally to the 12- to 15-year-old classroom. This way the younger students can learn from the older ones and the older students can help teach the younger students, Downing said. Sometimes kid speak or kid signing helps explain a difficult concept to a peer that finally makes it stick.

‘We have the chance to let kids in the classroom feel empowered by teaching,’ Downing said. ‘Instead of ‘Stop talking and turn around,’ I’ll give you 20 minutes with him to explain what you think that means and I’ll be back to check on you. And Ivy is really good in math, and she’s been instrumental in re-explaining something to her classmates. I’ve watched her in action and she comes up with some really funny examples and other students kind of go ‘Oh’ and the teachers will go, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’

Classes have six to eight students in them, and there is lots of one-on-one time with teachers. Each day the children get a contract of what they must cover that day and then they decide when they want to learn that subject. This approach is used because kids’ brains learn different subjects better at different times of the day, Downing said, so the lessons are more effective when they are excited and ready to study that subject instead of being forced to do particular subjects at particular times.

‘They make things interesting here,’ Ivy signed. ‘Like math? you have to figure it out. And when you get frustrated, you don’t get upset. The teacher works with you one-on-one and makes you feel better about learning. I feel smarter all the time.’

Ivy said her teacher keeps her challenged and she feels a camaraderie with him because he is deaf, too. It’s wonderful that all the teachers teach in sign language so they do not have to rely on interpreters, she said. The teachers at Blossom make concepts stick, she said, and she is grateful she attends the school.

‘I would be so bored (in public school)’ Ivy said, ‘because they don’t really have high expectations (of deaf kids) and things would be just baby easy. But at Blossom, it’s so much more challenging. I know it. And they just tell me I can be smarter and smarter and smarter.’

The hardest part of being deaf is just not being able to hear, Ivy said, and it is very hard to learn a language she has never heard. That is why it helps to learn with the Montessori method in which every word and concept has a tangible object, she said.

‘When you write things down, it’s there (on the page,) but when you move things, you understand what they mean,’ Ivy signed. ‘They have names and they’e objects and it’s related to the names, and then when you take the test and you have something you can remember. It sticks. You can pick it up and use it and put it back down and remember the name of it. And sometimes, if you think you’ve forgotten something, you can go back and remember the name of something because it is in your head. You’ve learned it with your hands, so it’s in your head.’

Ivy is full of ambition and wants to attend high school at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine and then go on to becoming either a veterinarian, nurse, scientist or an artist.

Ivy said the school has helped her family, too. There are monthly adult classes, and because of that, Ivy’s mom, grandmother and aunt have learned excellent sign language, which helps Ivy communicate with her family.

‘I think this helps with respect,’ Downing said. ‘Like Ivy’s mom, yeah, she has to learn sign language to talk to her daughter, but guess what? Her daughter has to learn English to talk to her. And as she said, it’s so hard when you can’t hear the language.’

The school also teaches social responsibility. For instance, starting in preschool, the kids decide when they want their snack, so they tell the teacher and then get their food themselves, take out a paper plate and napkin and then clean up after themselves. If they spill, they clean it up, and the students clean their own lunch room as well.

Children may enroll in the school at any age between 2 1/2 and 15 and at any time of the year, Downing said. Cost is $5,500 a year for preschool and $7,000 a year for the older students, although the actual cost is about $25,000 per year per child. As a nonprofit organization, the school relies on charitable contributions to fund the difference and other costs.

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