The Voice of Hands

More than 200 students, ages 3 to 21, attend the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. BU alumni are among their teachers and principals.

By outward appearances, the combined preschool/elementary school building nestled in tree-lined suburban Philadelphia is like any other. Walls outside of classrooms are decorated with children’s art. Red wagons line the corridor.
After a few moments, you notice that it’s a little quieter than a typical elementary. And in the stairwell you see the painting of a great blue hand — index and pinkie upstretched, center fingers folded down, thumb out. For the students here, the message is clear. The hand says “Love” in American Sign Language. These students are deaf or hard of hearing.

For these children, this building is much more than a school. The Pennsylvania School for the Deaf campus is an extension of family for students from preschool through high school. It’s where they learn language — to speak, to communicate. It’s where they discover a community that speaks the same language they do.
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 90 percent of deaf children have hearing parents. Things that many children take for granted — for example, learning to pronounce a sound like p or t — are much more difficult without hearing. And signing is a language of its own. These children live in a bi- or, sometimes, tri-lingual world.

Over the past four decades, Bloomsburg University alumni have become part of the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf family as teachers and administrators. Today, the staff includes more than a half dozen BU graduates, including elementary and middle school principal Valerie Houser ’84, who came to the school as an intern in 1985 and never left. Her office is located in a building that was part of Gen. George Washington’s camp during the Revolutionary War, one of the historic structures the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf purchased in 1984.

Bloomsburg University’s history in the education of the deaf dates to 1971 when faculty emeritus Gerry Powers established the graduate program in the education of the deaf and hard of hearing. The culture of engagement, so present at the School for the Deaf, is central to Bloomsburg’s program, as well.

Culminating experiences
Students participate in a camp for the deaf each summer in nearby Millville. The university also sponsors a summer mini-camp for deaf and hard of hearing preschool children. Culminating experiences for the graduate students include eight weeks of classroom experience, primarily sign language environments, and another eight weeks of experience with a certified itinerant teacher of the deaf.

Engagement is what motivated Ashley Kleiner ’10 to become a teacher at the School for the Deaf. Kleiner took a sign language course as a high school freshman and fell in love with it. She studied interpreting, but that wasn’t enough.

“With interpreting, you have to step back and deliver the message,” she says. “It wasn’t involved enough for me, so I went back to school for deaf education.” •

Eric Foster is photography editor of Bloomsburg: The University Magazine.

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