The sounds of clapping mingled with hands raised and wiggling, the American Sign Language signal for applause as this year’s four graduates of The Pennsylvania School for the Deaf walked down the aisle clad in blue robes for their departure from high school.
The hour and a half ceremony to honor seniors Taji Brown, Mark Gonzales, Sacha Ramos and Naima Boudreaux was held in Germantown Friends School’s general assembly hall, located just around the corner from PSD’s campus on the 100 block of West School Lane in Germantown.
The Friends School hall, packed with the family and PSD staff who have supported the seniors throughout their education, was symbolic of the structure that the school has provided for deaf students throughout it’s nearly 200 years of operation.
“I’ve been here since pre-K,” valedictorian Naima Boudreaux, from neighboring Mount Airy, said.
“It’s really made me who I am today. That’s how I graduated today– because everyone here has believed in me.”
Boudreaux plans to study social work at Gallaudet University, a liberal arts school for the hearing impaired located in Washington D.C. in the fall.
Marja Brandon, the Head of School and school spokeswoman, said PSD draws students from all over the region. While about 75% come from the Philadelphia area, attending PSD means a lengthy commute for the other quarter of the student body.
“Some of these students are bussed over an hour and a half each way,” Brandon said.
Why would students and their parents go to such great lengths to attend PSD?
Brandon suggests that the school’s long history and its strong focus on the future makes it an excellent place. The school is the third oldest deaf school in America. Brandon, who has been the Head of School for a year, is using her position to incorporate technology into the classroom.
“All of our classrooms have Macbooks and e-beams and smartboards and elmos. This is a digital society and the future is going to be tech-connected, so our kids need to learn on that. There are no barriers for deaf kids with technology.”
PSD students agree that technology is beneficial to their learning and lifestyle.
Valedictorian Boudreaux said, “Being a deaf individual I loved the visual access to the information. With technology, we can see and understand anything.”
Despite the support and resources that the school provides, making it to graduation is not easy.
“We used to have a class of 13, then it was eight, then it was six, and now there’s four,” graduate Mark Gonzalez said. “We had to work really hard.”
Gonzalez faced adversity when he found out that his girlfriend was pregnant. He considered dropping out of school.
“I wasn’t sure what to do. I cried every night. Should I drop out and work a job?”
Gonzalez applied for social security income and rode his bike back and forth rain or shine to the office to try to get the money to support his family so that he could stay in school. After three months, Gonzalez was finally accepted for SSI and could finish his degree at PSD and move on to college. Gonzalez will also attend Gallaudet University in the fall.
Over the years there have been many PSD students who have been unable to graduate due to different issues and problems. For the first time as part of the graduation ceremony, former PSD students who were not able to receive a diploma were granted honorary diplomas.
Thomas Coulston Sr., who would have graduated in 1937, Glenn E. Hoshauer, who would have graduated in 1949, and recently deceased Mark A. Corson, who would have graduated in 1962– all before the school moved to Germantown from Center City in 1984. Nominees had to provide a valid reason for leaving PSD before graduation, such as economic depression, hardship, work to support their family, illness or death of a family member, or military service. There is a 25 year waiting period from the intended graduation to be considered for an honorary diploma.
“It’s been sixty years since I was in school I was going to graduate but my parents needed me to help them. We were very, very, very poor,” Thomas Coulston Sr. said. Coulston is the fourth generation of PSD graduates in his family. “I’m very proud to receive this diploma.”
PSD Head of School Brandon sees the school as an important part of Germantown’s educational community.
“Along with Germantown Friends School and Green Street Friends School, we embody School House Lane and we’re great neighbors. I would really like to involve the neighbors more in PSD and be involved in the neighborhood in greater ways.”
For now, the school provides an important place for deaf students to grow and learn.
“Here, it’s not about being the least restrictive environment, it’s about being the most enabling and empowering environment,” Brandon said.
Boudreaux, who took classes at Germantown Friends as well as PSD, contrasts the two experiences: “I’m mainstreamed for English class but I am not connected with the other students. When I go back to PSD for my other classes I feel really bonded with those people because of language…so a deaf school is really important.”