After she clicked her silver slippers and returned to Delaware from the peculiar world of Oz, Amelia Berg said that she really enjoyed signing during the Delaware School for the Deaf’s production of “Wizard of Oz” so both deaf and hearing people could enjoy the show.
Berg, a sixth-grade student at DSD, played the role of Dorothy in the production earlier this month, which coincided with the school’s 50th anniversary. The celebration brought together alumni, community members and current students to celebrate the work the school does.
“We have a really good culture at the school,” Berg said through an interpreter. “I believe that DSD is really good for us, supporting the deaf community and deaf children who would otherwise be stuck going to hearing schools.”
Berg is just one of the 115 students enrolled in the K-12 program at the school. DSD, however, stretches beyond the campus on East Chestnut Hill Road.
The school is housed within the Christina School District, but it supports all 19 school districts and charter schools within the state.
Its origins, however, can be traced to humbler beginnings. In 1929, Margaret Sterck opened a one-room school for deaf students in Grace Church in Wilmington.
“It started with a 3-year-old little boy that they couldn’t figure out how to set up services for, and it went from there,” said Dr. Laurie Kettle-Rivera, director of DSD.
A year later, Sterck purchased a house on Van Buren Street in Wilmington to create a school and a private residence.
Sterck, whose career in deaf education began at a school in Philadelphia at the age of 17, was motivated out of concern that deaf and hard-of-hearing students in Delaware didn’t have enough access to education within their own state.
Her concern was a driving force for the evolution of deaf education in Delaware, which has continued to expand in the last 50 years.
“It says that we’re having a 50th anniversary, but really deaf education in Delaware goes back almost 100 years,” Kettle-Rivera said.
Though Sterck’s program was later disbanded, when the Delaware State Board of Education constructed a building for deaf students next to Kirk Middle School in 1968, it was named in honor of Sterck.
In 1973, Dr. Roy Holcomb was hired as the director and introduced the “total communication” philosophy, which advocates for the use of sign language when instructing deaf students. Up until that point, it had been done through oral instruction. In 1993, Director Edward Bosso introduced the bilingual, bicultural philosophy, which has students maximize their potential in American Sign Language and English.
“That shift really helps students find pride and confidence in both languages and cultures,” Kettle-Rivera said.
In 1995, the name officially changed to Delaware School for the Deaf. Sterck’s name remains as the name of the theater at the school’s new building, which opened in 2011 just down the road from the original school and features mindful architecture and design for those with hearing loss.
Beyond the physical building, DSD’s statewide programs include services for around 80 deaf-blind students, consultations and additional support for districts and families, a home-visit program for children from birth to age 5 with hearing loss, preschool classes at DSD and parent-infant programming.
“We have teams that will go out and work with school staff in districts and charters to help them. Our goal is to increase the local capacity around the student to create child change,” Kettle-Rivera said. “We serve children wherever they are, regardless of educational placement. We are here to support and serve any child with a varying hearing loss in the state, one to 21.”
Kettle-Rivera explained that the school has a residential program, opportunities for students to take classes at the nearby Christina School District high schools and intense transition programming to make sure students are prepared for higher education or career placement.
The residential program allows for students to live on campus with their peers in age and gender appropriate units. Each has a resident advisor, who works with the students on interpersonal and social skills, problem solving, communication and independent living skills.
“DSD is really fun, and I’ve learned a lot of things in the dorms,” Enrique Martinez-Sandoval, an eighth-grade student from Georgetown who lives in the dorms during the week, said through an interpreter.
He noted that students get to go swimming, fishing, to the park or for walks.
“We do a lot of fun activities,” he said.
For many of the students, the school has offered them a way to connect with their peers and learn in a supportive environment.
Devante Serfass, a ninth-grader, said that at his previous school, there was a lot he couldn’t learn.
“I wasn’t a social person when I was there and I wasn’t able to learn that much, but I can here,” Serfass said through an interpreter. “It’s easier for me to learn here and I had better communication and I have a higher chance of graduating.”
Aidan Walls, a seventh-grade student who starred as the lion in DSD’s production of the Wizard of Oz, said it was a little scary to be in the play because he just started at DSD a month ago, but he is more confident now.
He noted that at his old school, a lot of people made fun of him. But at DSD, he has made a lot of friends and has gotten involved in the school.
“I like my friends here,” he said. “They’re the best friends I’ve had.”
Kelly Graham, who graduated from DSD in 1991 and now works there, said the school offers many opportunities to its students.
“I decided to come back to teach us because I really love deaf children. I’ve had a lot of experience around deaf people, obviously, and I love the exposure they can get here,” Graham said through an interpreter. “I really love it.”
As a teacher, she said the highlights are vast, but she pointed to growth as a top factor.
“It’s really inspiring to see the steps that they’ve made, and all their improvements, throughout the year,” she said.
She noted the strength of the program and the people who make it come together.
“We all really support each other and collaborate together,” she said. “I just love coming here and I’m really motivated to get to work every day.”
Jayanna Henry, a seventh-grader, and Savvy Werner, a first-grader, both said they love everything about the school – except maybe gym class, Werner added.
“It’s a good environment for me and it fits my personality and needs,” Henry said through an interpreter.
Daimier Miller, a sixth-grader, said that he loved “basically everything” after being at DSD for 12 years. Unlike Werner, he did show favoritism to the gym.
“A lot of like good things happen there – like a lot of basketball games, volleyball, pep rallies,” he said. “A lot of good things.”
Kettle-Rivera also noted that children from other countries come to DSD to learn, and teachers have seen those students flourish.
“We have students every year that come to our school who have moved from other countries who have no language, they have no school experience, they have never stepped foot in a school before, and they’re teenagers,” she said. “We’ve had several students who just thrive.”
She noted one student who arrived without any language skills now manages a flower shop in Wilmington.
“She’s just doing amazing,” she said. “Every child here thrives and does amazing things.”
Kettle-Rivera said that she recently spoke to the Delaware House of Representatives in recognition of the 50th anniversary.
“I talked a little bit about ‘Here’s what we’re doing today,’ but we’re constantly focusing on the future and our strategic plan, what are we doing next, and where we’re going to be in 20 years,” she said. “We have to keep growing and expanding because the population keeps growing and expanding.”