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Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf marks 140 years of educational milestones

| Saturday, Sept. 26, 2009

Rosa Jugan wasn't surprised when her son Blaise brought home an 'A' on his first electronics test at a technical school because 13 years at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf prepared him for whatever the hearing world would throw at him.

"The school taught him to have very high self-esteem," said Jugan, 46 of Glassport.

This weekend, the school in Edgewood celebrates 140 years of educating children with hearing disabilities. School officials say it was the first day school in the nation for deaf students. The school will host tours, sporting events and a dinner today at Edgewood Country Club in Churchill.

A tuition-free, nonprofit school, it operates primarily with money from benefactors.

The school educates students from more than 50 counties in Pennsylvania. Those who live more than an hour's drive stay on campus Sundays through Fridays, said spokeswoman Vicki Cherney. Teachers and staff, including janitors and security guards, speak in English and American Sign Language.

"We don't believe that one way fits all, and there are many ways a child can learn and communicate," said Superintendent Don Rhoten. "Our children can choose how they want to communicate."

The school's enrollment peaked in 1971-72 at 551 students. An epidemic of German measles in the 1960s caused a spike in the number of children born deaf, according to school officials.

In 1975, Congress passed a law requiring school districts to provide free, appropriate education to disabled students. Cochlear implants and hearing aids assisted efforts to mainstream students who are hard of hearing, school officials said.

Since the American with Disabilities Act in 1990, school districts have been required to provide supplemental services to students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Today, 175 students are enrolled at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. In recent years, the school assumed contracts with districts such as Pittsburgh Public Schools to provide support services and interpreters.

The school helps children from birth to one year after high school graduation. The campus has laptops available to every classroom, as well a learning center, a combination library-computer lab with fish, birds and snakes for students to observe.

Students in younger grades attend classes in the Children's Village, a series of child-sized buildings that allow them to learn about life skills such as banking and shopping.

"We're teaching them that it really does take a whole community for everything to run smoothly," Cherney said. "They love it."

Sophomore Megan Eighmey, 17, of Pittsfield has made friends and experienced what high school should be like -- something she doesn't believe would be possible at her hometown school.

"I like WPSD. I think it's No. 1," Eighmey said through an interpreter. "I like going here better, because it would be harder to communicate through a mainstream school."

Additional Information:


Important dates in the 140-year history of the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf:

• Sept. 4, 1869: Opens Downtown as the Western Pennsylvania Institute for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, the first day school in the nation for deaf children.

• September 1884: Moves to its Edgewood campus.

• February 1923: Changes its name to the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.

• 1971-72: Enrollment peaks at 551.

• Summer 1985: Graduates its largest senior class of 58 students.

• Oct. 12, 2007: Holds a grand opening for its Children's Village.

• 2009: Assumes the administration of The Scranton State School for the Deaf, which is renamed the Scranton School for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children.

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