Kansas School for the Deaf turns 150 this month

To a person who hears, lunchtime at this particular school can be a jarring and confusing sight. Hands aflutter, kids laughing, the clanging of chairs and the squeaking of floors.

Heads quickly scan the room, looking to see if they missed part of a funny comment or are being left out of a story.

But nary a word.

Have a camera, and curiosity soars. But the students approach with caution. There’s an awkward moment when a student realizes a hearing person doesn’t speak their language. And for a hearing person, you can’t help but feel left out of all the fun.

A brave 4-year-old approaches.

Tiny fingers move and the girl is telling you her age.

“I’m four,” she says, in sign language.

The cookie she’s munching on?

“It’s chocolate chip,” she says and now bored, she turns around, munching and signing, talking to her friends.

The scene isn’t much different from an encounter with a 4-year-old at another school. Curiosity, a short attention span and having lunch with friends. Just no words.

This is the Kansas School for the Deaf, which this month celebrates its 150th anniversary. Through the years, thousands of students have passed through the school, learned a new language, moved on to careers and created a “deaf-friendly” culture in Olathe.

About the school

Seventh-grader Cameron Symansky, 12, plays football, basketball, hunts and is a Boy Scout.

The Kansas School for the Deaf offers a variety of sports and extracurricular options, and if something isn’t offered at the school, students simply hop over to one of the local schools to join in.

“There’s a lot of activities,” said Cameron, using sign language, interpreted for the Journal-World.

Just more evidence to help fight the occasional stereotypes the deaf students at the school encounter.

“It can be frustrating sometimes with a hearing person because they think that we’re limited,” he said.

About half the roughly 150 students live near the school — which is part of the state’s public school system and is available to any deaf student in Kansas — and attend during the day, like Cameron. The other half live farther away from the school and stay in dorms on site during the week.

Cameron, originally from South Korea, was adopted when he was 3 and started in the preschool program. Cameron had an early leg up on education, which is key, said Luanne Barron, the school’s assistant superintendent. Students can attend as early as age 3 and stay until they’re 21. Barron encourages students to enroll at the school as soon as possible because in many smaller Kansas towns, there just aren’t enough services for deaf students.

“In some rural areas, there may not be an interpreter all,” Barron said.

Like some of the other students, Cameron tried the public school system. He said it was a good learning experience, but communicating with other students was always an issue.

“It was really difficult to make friends,” Cameron said. “I wanted to stay in the public school, but communication was really difficult.”

But here at the school for the deaf, Cameron has the opportunity to make friends who speak his language.

His experiences have been so positive that one of his possible career choices would be coming back to the school, which students and staff simply call KSD, after college to be a counselor.

“KSD is very important to me,” he said.

Two languages

Barron emphasizes that the school is a bilingual school, where students learn English and American Sign Language.

“They’re two completely different languages,” she said. In addition to other state certification requirements, teachers at the school must also be certified in American Sign Language. The staff has both deaf and hearing faculty, Barron said.

Classes are designed to give both languages equal weight, and that’s on full display in teacher Daniel Allen’s sixth-grade classroom for story time.

During the week, the students were studying Roald Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach.”

As opposed to simply reading the story, Allen and the class also sign the words.

The students giggle throughout Allen’s signing of the story, as he exaggerates the signs and adds in his own humorous facial expressions.

“It’s one of my favorite things to do with my class,” Allen said. “I love it.”

The performance aspect of story time embraced by Allen is key, he said, because it helps students connect the written word to the gestures and signing.

“It’s a visual language,” Allen said.

The visual aspect is a point emphasized by teachers and by the decoration of the school. At every corner of the several buildings on the campus, students are met with bright colors, murals and “deaf-visual” art, which is a combination of artwork and signing. Lining the school library are portraits with a visual element, such as a house with hands signing “home.”

‘Typical’ experiences

And deaf families from all over the country make Olathe their home, in large part because of the reputation of the school and the city.

High school student Briella Diaz, 15, moved with her parents and siblings — all of whom are deaf — last year from Utah, after having trouble with services for the deaf in that state.

“We knew there was a large deaf community here,” Briella said. “Everything’s ready to go here.”

Briella talks in glowing terms of the community surrounding the school. Go into a store or restaurant, and you’re bound to run into another deaf person, she said. Police carry notebooks and are ready to write notes to residents during interactions, and businesses seem ready and willing to assist deaf customers.

“There’s caption televisions everywhere,” Briella said. Supporting the deaf “is like the law here.”

But occasionally, Briella said, she and her friends encounter someone not quite comfortable with a deaf person.

“Some hearing people just back off,” she said. But that provides an opportunity. “It’s important to educate them.”

When asked about what her life is like and what she likes to do, Briella uses the word “typical” a lot.

She plays volleyball, competes on the academic bowl team, hangs out with friends and plans to go to college at Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf in Washington, D.C., that’s a popular college choice for the school’s students.

Briella laughs when asked if there’s the typical gossip about boyfriends and girlfriends among the students.

“Oh yeah, it’s real-life drama here,” she said.

Ask Briella what it’s like being deaf, or going to a deaf school, and she just shrugs. They’re questions she’s been asked before, and she just doesn’t have any huge revelations about her experiences.

“We just have a different language, that’s all,” she said.

By Shaun Hittle

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