Alfonso Torres Jr. doesn’t catch a bus to school. He changes time zones.
First, there’s the half-hour drive from his family’s home in Hugoton in western Kansas to the regional airport in Liberal, where he gets on a small plane to Denver. From there, a bigger plane brings him to Kansas City International. And then there’s the commute to school in Olathe.
Two weeks later, Torres reverses the ordeal to return home for the weekend. He barely has time to catch up and do his chores before he’s up with the sun on Sunday and heading back to school.
Torres, now a senior, has been making these trips since he was in the third grade.
But that’s what you do when home is at one end of a long state like Kansas and the school for the deaf is at the other end.
“My parents wanted me to have a better opportunity for my future,” said Torres, who is deaf.
The Kansas State School for the Deaf is just off Santa Fe Street in downtown Olathe, not far from the courthouse. It’s been around for 150 years, but many people have no idea what goes on there.
Well, pretty much the same things that go on in other public schools. Reading, writing and arithmetic. Football games and Homecoming. Student council and academic bowl competitions.
OK, they don’t have a band. And class changes might be signaled by a flicker of lights instead of a bell.
But imagine classrooms in which there is very little distracting noise and all the pupils’ eyes are fixed on the teacher.
On a recent day, about 16 students ranging from the fourth to sixth grades gathered after lunch for a bit of story signing with teacher Beth Beadle. She would read — to herself — a page or two from a children’s novel about the Titanic and then relate the events to the class using sign language.
You’ve never seen kids pay closer attention in school.
The walls of the classroom look like any other elementary school, with posters featuring the U.S. flag and the Pledge of Allegiance. Others explain what nouns, verbs and adjectives are.
One sign stands out: “If I don’t know the word — fingerspell!”
The kids are encouraged to spell out new words using individual signs for each letter. It’s not an ideal way to communicate, but it is a bridge to both formal sign language and to English.
“Because they don’t hear the words, they need to see the word over and over and over again, and to fingerspell it over and over again,” said bilingual specialist Kester Horn-Marsh, who was serving as interpreter for visitors to this particular class.
Students at the Kansas School for the Deaf strive to be fluent in two languages — with English being the second one. American Sign Language, or ASL, is their first language.
Almost everyone who works on campus, from janitors to teachers to dorm monitors, use ASL. One who doesn’t is Superintendent Madeleine Burkindine, who has only been in that post for two years. But she’s working on it.
Jacob giggles as a staffer gives him treats and tries to manipulate his fingers at the same time. The 4-year-old was learning the abstract sign for “swallow.”
It’s never too early.
“At six months old, if they don’t have exposure to their first, primary language then their brain doesn’t develop as it would if they were either listening to a language or seeing a language and beginning to understand that language,” said Burkindine.
The Kansas School for the Deaf has an outreach program for children up to 3 years old and an on-site early childhood center for preschoolers. The school believes that the earlier kids learn, the better they will do in school and later in life.
Students here are immersed in sign language. Even their playground has a mural, painted by students’ mothers, that depicts the hand signs for simple nouns, such as tree or deer.
Kids who come from families with deaf parents or siblings are actually lucky, in one regard, because that means it is more likely that sign language is used in their home.
“Often parents find out that their child is deaf through the hearing screening test,” said Luanne Barron, assistant superintendent at the school and a deaf person herself. “And then, they don’t know what to do. Some parents use sign language and some don’t. So that delays the child’s language. That’s a big impact on their education.”
Mary Grove, a senior at the Kansas School for the Deaf, can attest to that. Her parents found out she was deaf when she was about nine months old and immediately began learning sign language so they could help her learn. Mary’s two younger sisters also learned to sign fluently.
“It’s sad to say, a lot of hearing parents don’t learn sign language,” Grove said. “I’m one of the few that had hearing parents who learned to sign, so I benefitted greatly from that.”
That’s why instructors sigh when older students arrive at the Kansas School for the Deaf who are way behind. They work to help them catch up academically.
Just this year, the school welcomed a new student in the 11th grade who had little signing ability.
“He just wasn’t succeeding” at his public school, said Horn-Marsh. “You’d think they would have caught it earlier. That’s what is so frustrating.
“Eleventh grade? Really? You couldn’t send them earlier?”
The Kansas State School for the Deaf is funded primarily by the state. It gets some federal money for school lunches and special education but nothing from local property taxes. Attendance is free for Kansas children who are deaf and who are referred by their local public school district.
But, as with most state programs, KSD is feeling the budgetary squeeze. In fiscal year 2012 it received $8.8 million in state funds, down from more than $9 million in 2008.
In 2009, a governor’s task force recommended the school for the deaf and the state school for the blind in Kansas City, Kan., be merged and occupy one campus, in Olathe, in order to save money. But when it became clear that such a move would require $26 million to $32 million in up-front costs, that idea was scrapped. Some administrative positions, however, are now shared by the two schools, including the superintendent.
Enrollment at KSD has declined since a nationwide epidemic of rubella, which can cause deafness, swelled class sizes in the 1960s and ’70s and since a 1975 law mandated more options in local schools. Last year there were 142 students. But a particularly large graduating class — 22 seniors — left the school with about 110 pupils when classes began this year.
The school has enjoyed a 100 percent graduation rate since 2009. Eight of last year’s seniors went on to four-year liberal arts colleges. One got a free-ride scholarship at Gallaudet University. Some graduates go to community colleges and some go to trade schools. Others go directly to employment.
The school is fully accredited and offers a kindergarten to 12th-grade education covering all the core subjects required by the Kansas State Board of Education.
A state-of-the-art video conferencing center was installed a few years ago. This year, a private gift has allowed the school to provide personal computers for classroom use and to install video communication links throughout campus.
The Kansas School for the Deaf adheres to a philosophy of bilingual education.
That may not sound surprising, but not all schools for the deaf are alike.
“There’s always a debate,” Barron said. “There’s a group who believes that all deaf children should speak only, and not be allowed to sign.”
The deep differences of opinion go back at least as far as the Milan Conference in 1880, which recommended that sign language be banned. The reasoning was that articulation and lip-reading imparted a fuller knowledge of language to the deaf person.
But Gallaudet College in the United States, named for Rev. Thomas Gallaudet, an American pioneer in deaf education, bucked the conference and continued to teach sign.
Even today there are differences among American schools. The Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis, for example, teaches children to listen, talk and read without using sign language.
Technology, such as cochlear implants, can also be divisive. The implants are small electronic devices that provide a sense of sound and can help a deaf person understand speech.
“Some parents think it’s a quick fix, and that their kids, who are deaf, are going to be hearing all of a sudden and therefore they don’t need to learn how to sign,” Barron said. “There are some people who don’t want implants. (But) the number of kids with cochlear implants is growing because of the technology advancement.”
Some students at KSD have implants but they are still taught to master sign language as well.
In a fourth-grade math class, teacher Molly Rothwell helped students with their work by splitting them into two groups. One group used English by writing on white boards. On the other side of the room, the second group used sign language only and learned arithmetic with the aid of large die. Then the two groups switched.
“Our school is hardcore bilingual, where our students learn and use ASL and spoken and written English,” Barron said.
Arrival at the school for the deaf can be traumatic for kids who are as young as 5 years old when their parents leave them at the dorm and drive away.
“It’s a difficult decision, I know, for those parents,” said Barron. “But what is best for the children? They have to make the choices.”
Students who live within 25 miles of the school go home every day. Most of those in the dormitory go home every weekend.
“It was scary, and I did a lot of crying,” said Torres, recalling that first separation when he was in third grade. “When I got here I made new friends and that made the time go faster between visits home. It probably took about a year for me to get completely used to it.”
Torres had started in public school at Hugoton but his parents decided that wasn’t going to work for him. Now a senior, Torres is glad his parents made that decision. The Hugoton School District pays for his commutes.
“I’m happy to be here because I didn’t have a direction,” he said. “I didn’t know what kind of future I would have. When I came here I was able to see what the possibilities were and get a direction and be able to pick a career field that I want to be in.”
Torres hopes to go on to Kansas City, Kan. Community College and learn to do auto body work and maintenance. He currently spends three hours each afternoon at the Olathe School District’s Millcreek Technical Education Center, not far from the School for the Deaf.
The dorms look like college dorms, with bunk beds and shared bathrooms. Most importantly, there are always people to “talk” to using sign language.
As difficult as it is at first, some students can find life easier at school and the dorm, especially if communicating with folks at home is difficult. Some don’t even look forward to school breaks because that means a period of little or no communication.
“Those children are so glad when they come back from the summer,” said Burkindine. “They’re just thrilled to come back because nobody at home could understand what they were trying to say. They’re just thrilled to be back in an environment where they can talk to their friends.”
Some parents uproot their whole families and move to Olathe for the sake of their deaf children.
Marva Thompson and her husband moved here from northeast Oklahoma when their son, Jeremiah, was 3.
“I would do it all over again,” said Marva Thompson, who now works at the school as executive assistant to the superintendent.
Jeremiah Thompson is now a senior at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York where he is studying business management and entrepreneurship. He plans to earn his MBA at Rochester, as well.
“In my opinion, this is one of the best schools in the state,” Jeremiah said of the Kansas School for the Deaf. “It offers socialization for deaf people. I’m the best person I can be because of the Kansas School for the Deaf.”
Before the Grove family moved to Olathe from southwest Missouri, they felt self-conscious in public.
“We would go to a restaurant and we would sign and people would stare at us,” said Kelly Grove, Mary Grove’s mother, who is now a transition coordinator for graduating seniors at the School for the Deaf. “We could feel them staring at us. When we moved to Olathe, I remember the first time we went to a restaurant nobody paid any attention to us when we were signing because they were already comfortable with that and familiar with people who could sign. We blended right in. We weren’t the outcasts anymore.”
Alfonso Torres can relate.
“In western Kansas people look at you like you’re strange,” he said. “They try to talk to you and they don’t understand why you need paper and pencil. I have to get out my phone and text to them that I need paper.”
But Olathe is one of the most deaf-friendly cities in the country, according to Deaf411, a marketing and public relations company that analyzed services and resources available in different cities.
Olathe also has one of the larger deaf communities. Gallaudet University estimates that just under 4 percent of the population of Kansas is deaf. But in a 2010 survey, 11 percent of households in Olathe reported a hearing disability.
It is not uncommon in Olathe to see clerks in stores signing to customers.
The Citizens Police Advisory Council has long had a deaf representative. James “Jim” Strom was recently appointed by Mayor Michael Copeland to replace Arden J. MacDowell, who died in 2010. Police officials and the advisory council this summer held a forum with the Olathe Club of the Deaf, which has its own clubhouse at 221 S. Chestnut St.
Olathe Medical Center has 16 sign language interpreters on staff and is considered a national model, said Cathy Cochran, manager of language access services for the hospital. Its umbrella Olathe Health System Inc. had nearly 6,000 patient contacts with deaf people last year.
The Olathe School District also has 16 sign language interpreters to serve deaf students in class, at assemblies and at sporting events. Many students at the School for the Deaf take specialized classes at Olathe schools.
City Hall is quite aware of the deaf constituency. City council meetings and Johnson County Commission meetings are closed captioned live on the city’s cable television channel. That’s made possible by voice recognition software purchased with a grant. The city also has sign language interpreters available for deaf citizens who need to conduct city business.
“The deaf culture is part of who we are,” said Tim Danneberg, a spokesman for the city. “The bottom line is, if we need to communicate with anybody that is deaf or hard of hearing, we’re prepared.”
Mary Grove plans to go on to Gallaudet University and major in education. She hopes to return to the school for the deaf and teach deaf kids.
“It’s kind of tough that it’s my last year because this is like my second home,” Grove said. “I’m excited and I’m sad at the same time.”
Grove believes strongly that the education she has received here was every bit as good as what mainstream public schools have to offer.
“What I got at the school for the deaf is to be able to have pride in myself as a deaf person, to be able to advocate for myself,” she said.
Grove once had to be in a hospital in St. Louis, where deaf culture is less dependent on sign language. She had to explain to the doctors and nurses there why she needed an interpreter and why she wanted closed captioning activated on the television. In fact, she had to insist.
“This school taught us how to do that,” said Grove. “They’ve taught us not to feel intimidated. They’ve taught us not to just bow down and accept everything that happens. They’ve taught us to know and understand that we’re equal and we can do the same things.”
To reach Matt Campbell call 816-234-4902 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org