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School for the Deaf Sees Rapid Growth

By ADAM EMERSON, Tampa Tribune
Published: September 4, 2005

LARGO – For two years, Julie Rutenburg maintained her “dream come true” within a complex of office centers in Clearwater.

She had opened the Blossom Montessori School for the Deaf in summer 2003.

Eight children enrolled.

The concept of such a school had never been tried before, Rutenburg said: The parents “just had trust.”

Today, the school’s enrollment has grown to 25 children — ranging from the deaf to the hearing impaired. The school has moved from the building it had shared with another Montessori school to a temporary site in Largo, where Rutenburg and her staff of eight await renovations to Blossom’s first dedicated school building.

Rutenburg said her school is only the second one in Florida to serve exclusively deaf and hearing-impaired children. The other is the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, a public boarding school in St. Augustine.

She says she knows of no other school in the nation that uses the Montessori method to teach deaf children.

Montessori stresses hands-on learning through all five senses and allows children to learn at their own pace by choosing activities in which they want to participate. Lessons are done on the floor.

Rutenburg said the curriculum at Blossom is tailored to each child. Teachers and pupils communicate through American Sign Language. Instead of grade levels, children are grouped by age: 3- to 6-year-olds; 6- to 9-year-olds; 9- to 12-year-olds; and 12- to 15-year-olds.

That model is ideal for deaf children, Rutenburg said. However, she and her staff concede they have no other model to work from.

“There’s a lot of learning as we go,” said Kristi Kauffman, the school’s associate director.

Rutenburg got the idea for the school after she worked with deaf children as an intern in the Pinellas County school district.

The school system was too large for those children, she said, and teachers were too focused on testing.

“They just had their hands full,” Rutenburg said. “Kids were falling through the cracks.”

Rutenburg’s first classrooms opened in the Annsworth Montessori School at 5990 142nd Ave. N. in Clearwater. With enrollment increasing steadily, the school starting enrolling preschool-age children this year.”We were bursting at the seams,” she said.

In August, classes opened in a suite of offices at 12505 Starkey Road in Largo. The staff is renovating a building adjacent to Annsworth, and students should be moving there in January, Rutenburg said.

Tuition is $700 a month, or $7,000 a year. The school participates in the McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program. If parents have trouble meeting the cost, “we will work with them,” Rutenburg said.

The school’s oldest enrolled student is still a couple of years away from entering high school, Rutenburg said.

Because Blossom is a private school, students do not have to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. However, middle-school age students may soon begin taking the FCAT to better prepare them for high school, she said.

“There comes a time when they have to leave us and go into the hearing world,” she said.

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