Keeping an Ear to the Ground
Willie Ross Continues to Set the Tone in Education for the DeafThe Willie Ross School for the Deaf in Longmeadow has always been ahead of its time.
“The school was founded in 1967 by a group of parents who were pioneers in the field of education,” said Executive Director Louis Abbate, adding that an epidemic of rubella in the early ’60s caused many children to be born deaf. “They were led by Willie’s parents, Barbara and Gene Ross, at a time when all deaf children went to residential schools. It was a very bold step, because a day program for deaf children was something that was unheard of. But these parents wanted their children home so they could be part of the family.”
Since that time, Willie Ross has continued to forge ahead in the field of education for the deaf with a number of innovative programs that have served as a model for other schools of its kind. They include an integrated approach to communication, frequent examination of its instructional approach, and the acknowledgement and understanding that students with hearing loss from different backgrounds and cultures have different needs best met by a multitude of options to ensure that they get the best education possible and become productive members of society.
For this edition, BusinessWest takes an indepth look at what Willie Ross has done to stay at the forefront and inspire other schools for the deaf and hard of hearing, not only in this country, but across the world.
In the beginning, the school’s founders rented self-contained space within public-school classrooms.
“The parents of these deaf children wanted them in a hearing setting,” said Abbate. “This was a bold first step because no one in the history of special education thought it was a good idea or even possible. But they wanted to integrate their children.”
The founders faced many challenges, as they had to develop a curriculum and were on uncharted ground. But they were able to pool their resources and, in 1967, purchased the old Norway School in Longmeadow for $27,000. “The school had been built in 1917 and was quite dilapidated. But the lot included three acres and another building,” Abbate said.
These parents were active advocates for their children in the early ’70s, and their program had made such progress that local public schools began sending students with hearing deficiencies to Willie Ross. The state paid their tuition because the school was a nonprofit. In 1974, a shift came due to the adoption of Chapter 776, which shifted the responsibility of educating students with special needs from the state to the local community.
“There was a big push toward mainstreaming in 1974, which really began to give children with disabilities the right to a quality education,” Abbate explained. “And at that point, the school began to roll forward.”
However, since Willie Ross had always rented classroom space in public schools, it had enough experience to recognize that, “although it was our legacy to find opportunities for mainstreaming, it was not what some students needed. So we also offered a center-based model,” Abbate said. They also had rented classroom space for elementary students in East Longmeadow schools, for middle-school students in Longmeadow, and for high-school students in Longmeadow, and at the old William Dean Technical High School in Holyoke.
Abbate was hired in 1985, and he developed a partnership with officials in the East Longmeadow school system that he says was unique in the U.S. at that time.
“It took time, but it is amazing,” he said, noting that all students in public schools were moved to East Longmeadow, giving them the opportunity to make friendships that could continue throughout their schooling.
“It’s very interesting that, over the past 20 years, an entire generation has grown up with deaf students. They have developed wonderful friendships in an extremely welcoming and supportive environment,” Abbate said, adding that many students and East Longmeadow staff members have taken sign-language courses offered by Willie Ross.
The system developed by the partnership offers immersion and inclusion as a service for deaf and hard-of-hearing students when it is appropriate. East Longmeadow agreed that the students could be mainstreamed, with the caveat that Willie Ross would provide interpeters and staff to teach the classes. Willie Ross also does consultations for East Longmeadow students who have hearing loss.
In fact, the system of shared resources works so well that, although Willie Ross has students from 19 school districts, it has never had one from East Longmeadow.
“We were able to keep our corporate soverigenty even though we were in the public schools, as both systems worked cooperatively; everything was worked out legally to make it an optimal experience for all students,” Abbate explanined. “Because we can offer our students two campuses, we can provide them with a wide range of opportunities. It is all about changing our business plan to respond to the changing needs of students, which is what we have always tried to do.”
The system has been so successful that it has become a model that others strive to emulate.
“Within the last three years, we have had visitors from South Africa, China, India, Taiwan, and Trinidad who came to see how it is possible to link public-school opportunties with a private school. People can’t imagine how a program like ours can work,” Abbate said, adding that one obstacle is that private schools are concerned about their institutional identity, while the notion of having a school inside a school seems like an insurmountable challenge to many public schools.
“But I think this is the model of the future and is a very good use of physical resources,” Abbate said, adding that he recently met with officials from the Washington D.C. public school system as part of ongoing efforts at Willie Ross to help other schools across the nation establish satellite programs.
A trustee committee oversees the partnership. “They are committed to children, and the fact that this school was founded by parents gives us a different view,” Abbate said. “The fact that a group of parents were so committed to their children that they built a school for them is a legacy that needs to be rejuvenated and change as kids change. It’s part of the reason why we are one of the only schools in the country for the deaf which has a campus inside a public school. We look at ourselves as heirs of the legacy of our founders, as our philosophy is to educate one child at a time.”
Five years ago, the school revisted its mission and instituted an outreach and early-intervention team. Not only did they realize it was important to serve students as early as possible, children’s needs were changing due to advanced technology, which includes cochlear implants, surgically implanted electronic devices that can provide a sense of sound to people who are profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing.
In addition, an increasing number of students came from homes where English isn’t the primary language. So administrators assembled a team of three leading educators of the deaf and worked with them to develop a new mission, which reflects the contemporary needs of their students.
“We came to the conclusion that one size doesn’t fit all, which meant more recognition of the value of different approaches,” Abbate said, adding that this is highly ununsual for a school that serves the deaf and hard of hearing. “We started out as an oral school, saw its limitations, introduced sign language in addition to voice, and continue to use both modalities,” he said.
Meeting operational costs is a challenge, however, even though the school’s teachers work at well below the public-school rate. “Our revenue is dependent on tuition from students, and the state has frozen the rate. This year it only went up 0.75%. Plus, we are not eligible for any stimulus money which poured into the state for public schools,” Abbate said.
But administrators continue to forge ahead with programs and modes of learning to best serve their students.
“We have been able to do a lot, but it is primarily due to the generosity of the community. They are very supportive of us, and we rely on their help more and more,” Abbate said. “We have three goals for our students — competitive employment, sheltered employment, or college. Most schools of our size only concentrate on one of these goals, so it is a lot for us to do. But having our East Longmeadow partnership is an enormous opportunity for our students.”
The school recently completed a campus-enhancement project, which involved purchasing an overgrown acre of land adjacent to the property and developing it to enhance programs for students.
The new West Campus will be used for recreational, instructional, and athletic programs, as well as for school activities. It boasts an outdoor classroom, a walking/fitness track, a nature trail, an honor garden with plaques that celebrate deaf people who have made significant contributions to improve the lives of their peers, a basketball court, and playing fields.
The $500,000 project, funded by a capital campaign, also features a new multi-purpose room which will help the school provide more sophisticated services to students with cochlear implants and expand transition services for students graduating from high school.
Abbate said the school plans to have an after-school and summer program, and he’s happy that the board and staff members had the vision to look at the land “which was completely overgrown and littered with trash” and see its potential for their population of students, who range in age from 3 to 22. They went ahead with their vision when the land became available, and staff and students participated in decisions, such as choosing the deaf individuals who are commemorated on plaques in their Deaf Honor Garden.
“We are a nonprofit school, and it has always been a challenge to operate with limited resources, so I am grateful for the support and proud of what we will be able to offer students,” Abbate said. “The outdoor classroom puts us in the forefront of research-based education, and the property combines instructional and recreational opportunities that weren’t available before. It is a wonderful feeling to know that generations of students will be able to enjoy it.”