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Work on dorm under way at Edgewood school for deaf

| Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Rendering courtesy of MacLachlan, Cornelius & Filoni Architects Inc.
A new co-ed dorm is under construction at The Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf's campus in Edgewood. The dorm, a $9.3 million project, is expected to open by September.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Construction is under way on a co-ed dorm at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013, in Edgewood.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Construction is under way on a o-ed dorm at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013, in Edgewood.

Kai Miller, 15, knows the ins and outs of her school well enough to be a tour guide.

The sophomore, who is hard-of-hearing, has been a student at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Edgewood since 2010, the Lackawanna County resident said in sign language interpreted by Joan Stone, coordinator of interpreting services.

She and other students who stay in a campus dorm from Sunday evenings to Friday afternoons will move into the school's new $9.3 million dorm in September.

“I love the old dorm. I have great memories, but I'm also excited about being in a place that has everything new,” Kim signed.

The dorm, which is under construction, will be part of the school's efforts to integrate technology into learning and living on the campus, said Vicki Cherney, spokeswoman for the 144-year-old school.

The Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf is one of five schools for the deaf in Pennsylvania, according to the state Department of Education. Students attend at no cost to their families. Tuition is split between the state, which pays 60 percent, and the students' home school districts.

The new dorm will be paid for with private donations, including grants from foundations and individuals, school Chief Executive Officer Donald Rhoten said.

In the new co-ed dorm, boys will be on the first floor and girls will be on the second.

The building is needed because the old boys' dorm was built in the 1960s as a classroom facility and didn't allow for privacy, Rhoten said. It was neither technologically friendly nor energy efficient, he said.

The dorm was demolished in June.

The girls' dorm is in a building that houses a dining room, a preschool education program and a health center. Once the girls move into the new dorm, their old space will be used for administrative offices, Rhoten said.

While the new dorm is being constructed, boys are staying in the girls' dorm.

Students will have their own bedrooms in the new building, and will be clustered in groups of six to eight, Rhoten said. Students in each of the six clustered areas, or living suites, will share bathrooms, kitchens and study areas, he said.

The dorm will be more “deaf-friendly” because there will be more visual access to other students, Kai said.

The dorm will have a high level of connectivity for electronic communication, including wiring for video phones, Cherney said.

Technology is playing a larger role in how children with hearing loss learn, she said, but it has contributed to enrollment declines at the school.

In fact, the growing popularity of cochlear implants — electronic devices that can provide a sense of sound to people who are profoundly deaf or severely hard-of-hearing — has led to lower enrollment nationwide at schools for the deaf as more students enroll in their home districts, experts said.

More than 30 percent of WPSD's students have cochlear implants; 52 percent use hearing aids, the school said.

WPSD's enrollment hit a high of more than 500 students in the 1960s. Its enrollment declined for decades as more students were educated among their non-disabled peers, Cherney said.

Enrollment in WPSD has grown in recent years because the school added programs across the state, such as the 2009 opening of The Scranton School for Deaf & Hard of Hearing Children, a residential school that educates mostly preschool through eighth-grade students.

Of the more than 325 children — from birth to 12th grade — participating in the school's programs statewide, 170 are at the main campus in Edgewood and 40 percent of those students stay on campus.

One of those children is kindergartner Elisha Querry, 6, who is hard-of-hearing, according to his mother, Deb Querry of Cassville, Huntingdon County. This is Elisha's second year staying in the dorm on the Edgewood campus, she said.

Elisha, who wears hearing aids, has made tremendous strides in communicating using sign language, as well as with retaining information, compared with his progress when he was in a classroom with hearing children at the Tuscarora Intermediate Unit in McVeytown, his mother said.

“It took him a little while (to adjust to being away from home), but he loves the school,” she said.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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