New high school for Wisconsin School for the Deaf

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Wednesday, September 4, 2013

DELAVAN—This year, back to school will mean more than new outfits and school supplies for students at the Wisconsin School for the Deaf.

For Lawson Vollmar, 7, Delavan, it means not having to put his boots and coat on in the middle of winter just for a trip to the gym or cafeteria.

For Ka Youa Xiong, 17, Milwaukee, it means classrooms designed so she can better see and interact with her teachers.

On Wednesday, the school celebrated the opening of Chesebro Hall, a new high school facility.

“This is a launching pad for lots of dreams,” State Superintendent of Schools Tony Evers told the assembled group of students, teachers and state and local officials.

His comments were greeted with hand clapping from the hearing community and hand waving from the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.

The $5 million project has been in the works for nearly 40 years. The school first asked for money to build a new high school in 1974.

The 24,000-square-foot building is built on a single floor with a courtyard at its center to let in natural light. The building will connect the two other main building on campus, making it easier for students to get around.

The classrooms are small, and are designed so students sit in a circle facing each other and the teacher.

The previous high school, Walker Hall, was built in 1911. It had an unreliable elevator, and the wiring could not support common technology including SMART Boards and computers.

Less than an hour after the ribbon cutting, students already were in their new classrooms.

Xiong and classmate Alex Kubiske, 18, Delavan, sat in senior composition Wednesday. Kubiske has attended the Wisconsin School for the Deaf since the fifth grade.

“I like the building because it's more modern,” he said.

Light poured into the classroom both from exterior windows and from the courtyard at the center of the building.

For many students, the school has given them opportunities they wouldn't have had in their home districts, said Alex Slappey, school director.

Mainstreaming works for some kids who are deaf and hard-of-hearing, but not all of them.

“The kids who come here really need this school,” Slappey said.

Even when kids have interpreters in their home districts, they sometimes feel isolated or disconnected from their classmates, Slappy said.

“Deaf children of deaf parents do fairly well,” he said. “But some parents, despite their best efforts, just cannot learn sign language.”

When kids lack communication skills, they're more likely to become frustrated and act out, Slappy said.

 “When some students come here, they can't really speak sign language or the English language,” he said.

All staff and students at the school use American Sign Language, so students are immersed in it.

In terms of the language, “most of the learning goes on in the dormitory,” Slappey said.

For students who struggled in their home districts, the school has a well-developed program to teach social skills.

Between 30 and 40 percent of students at the school have a “duel diagnosis,” meaning they are deaf or hard-of-hearing and also might have a cognitive or physical disability.

The school conforms to all the state's academic standards, and about 80 percent of its students attend post-secondary education, Slappey said. That includes two- and four-year colleges, technical schools and other training programs.

UW-Rock County, UW-Milwaukee, the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and Galluadet University serve as the most popular choices for Wisconsin School for the Deaf students' post-secondary educations.

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