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Signs of Room to Grow Series: TOP OF THE CLASS

By JANE MADDEN WELCH, St. Petersburg Times
Published: September 13, 2005


Julie Rutenberg was a volunteer at the Deaf Service Center working as its liaison with the Pinellas public school system when she noticed some of the deaf children were falling behind their classmates.

There were first-graders who didn’t know the alphabet and fifth- graders who didn’t know the days of the week.

Rutenberg, a graduate of Clearwater Central Catholic High School and the University of South Florida, where she received a degree in educational interpreting for the deaf, decided to try to rectify that.

She had attended a Montessori school growing up and thought that environment could benefit deaf children and their families. So, in 2003, she opened Blossom Montessori School for the Deaf with 10 students, sharing space with Annsworth Montessori School on 142nd Avenue N in Clearwater.

Individualized course study, small classroom size, emphasis on lessons that are visual and tactile, as well as active parental involvement, have all contributed to the school’s unique experience, as well as its student body, which mixes deaf children with their hearing siblings, who can also attend Blossom.

“As far as I know, we’re the only school in the U.S. that accepts hearing and nonhearing siblings and uses the Montessori method,” said Rutenberg, 28.

The name for the school was suggested by Rutenberg’s father, Florida home builder Arthur Rutenberg. It’s an appropriate image for a place that nurtures young children, Rutenberg said.

“We want the kids to blossom, to develop under our care,” she said.

The school now has 25 students between the ages of 3 and 15. Some of them are hearing-impaired, ranging from mild hearing loss to profoundly deaf. The children are placed in three-year age groups where they learn at their own pace. Most classes are taught using American Sign Language. Curricula comply with the Sunshine State Standards and Montessori Scope and Sequence guidelines.

Cassandra Scott of Largo placed her sons Edward Fountain, 9, and Elan Fountain, 4, at Blossom. Edward was diagnosed with progressive hearing loss at age 4. Elan hears, but Scott wants him to learn how to sign and communicate with his brother.

“Elan has picked up so much just in his first month at Blossom,” Scott said.

The school is housed temporarily in an unremarkable one-story beige strip mall on Starkey Road in Largo, while its permanent location, a former telemarketing office at 14088 Icot Blvd., Clearwater, is being renovated.

“We just signed a five-year lease on a building we hope to move into at the end of this year,” Rutenberg said. She expects to begin classes there Jan. 2 after winter break.

The new building will allow Blossom to accept more students in January, but on a limited basis.

“We’re committed to keeping our 4-1 ratio of students to teachers,” said Kristi Kauffman, Blossom’s associate director.

Monthly tuition is $700 for grades K-8 and $550 for preschool. Financial help is available through the John McKay Scholarship Program, Coordinated Child Care of Pinellas and the Blossom Scholarship Fund.

The school has five teachers and two assistants. A speech language pathologist and behavioral and occupational therapists visit the school daily. Classes are from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., with extended afterschool care offered until 6 p.m.

Parents are responsible for transportation and must attend monthly meetings.

“There’s very much of a family feeling here,” Kauffman said. “When parents drop off their kids, it gives us a chance to interact every day.”

Lisa and Erik Cook of Palm Harbor have three children who have attended Blossom since its inception. Tyler, 11, and Erika, 9, were born profoundly deaf. Christina, 8, is “our hearing child, although she often doesn’t listen,” said Erik Cook, an executive for Walgreens.

Cook said his family has had a good experience with the school.

“It’s been awesome for us and our kids,” he said. “True to the name of the school, they’ve all blossomed.”

Tomy Rush, 3, Elan Fountain, 4, Logan Booth, 4, Brittany Perez, 3, Brianna Perez, 3, and Justyce Booth, 4, play a memory game with speech language pathologist Natalie Donihi at the Blossom Montessori School for the Deaf. The school opened in 2003 with 10 students. It now has 25 students from preschool to Grade 8 and will move to a new building at the end of the year. The school mixes deaf children and their hearing siblings.

Tiffany Davis, 13, is learning about pilgrims in Carol Downing’s classroom at Blossom. The school maintains a 4-1 ratio of students to teachers.

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