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Former Baxter School hears a new calling

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Former Baxter School hears a new calling

FALMOUTH — To some, the former Baxter School for the Deaf might seem as remote as its island location.

But that couldn't be further from the truth.

The Mackworth Island campus, once a last resort for children with hearing disabilities – and the subject of a sex abuse scandal in the 1980s – now has a much larger mission. As a part of the Maine Educational Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, the school has changed the way the state supports and instructs hearing-impaired children.

"I think we’ve really changed the face of the school over the last several years," said Executive Director David Sherry in a recent interview. 

Sherry said that because of shifting demographics, schools for hearing-impaired students have had to adapt to change and are now thriving. Across the country, he said, most schools have chosen a single form communication for their students, either American Sign Language or auditory-oral communication. Sherry said this has been a "turf war" for years.

The center tries to offer greater opportunity. For example, preschool classes are bilingual and bimodal, meaning spoken language and ASL are taught in the classroom.

"Our goal is to make sure we have all those doors open for the kids and that they have the opportunity to develop all skills and we never inadvertently deny them access to any community or any other social group that they want to be part of because we haven’t supported them in some way around a communication mode," Sherry said.

He said that because of new medical technology, children with mild hearing loss can function more effectively, and that has changed the way they are taught. 

Baxter now has 55 students in preschool through grade 12. However, Sherry said the school serves 450 kids statewide. Sherry said he is hoping this kind of work makes this a "model school." That includes being a resource center, not just a school.

"We do regional programing for kids to try to support the social and emotional issues and things like that," Sherry said. "A propensity of our work is in outreach."

Sherry said the challenges have increased over the years, as 55 percent of students are now from foreign-born families, and in some cases come to the school without a language at all.

Sherry said in general, schools for the deaf and hard of hearing have been struggling nationwide, especially as school districts try to retain their students. Enrollment is down, but he said that's due to a desire to place students in the "least restrictive environment" possible.

"It's a new world for deaf education," Sherry said.

Additionally, more students from the school are getting out into the community. The school has a partnership with Portland High School and Lyman Moore Middle School, as well as East End Community School, to send their students out to get "the best of both worlds," and connect "with people of all capabilities."

"We've left the island in many ways," Sherry said. "As far as a school is concerned, we are so much further beyond the island now than we ever were before."

The school provides outreach services to eight students at Lyman Moore, 11 students at Portland High, and two kindergartners at East End Community. The students attend those Portland schools full-time, but go to Mackworth to participate in sports. There is also a residential home run where students can stay during the week if their commute to the Portland schools is more than an hour.

Additionally, Sherry said the center offers three weekend get-together events  for kids from all over the state, in grades six through 12. And younger students go out into the Portland schools once a week for eight weeks of programming.

Sherry said he hopes that regional programs, like the Portland one, will grow. He said he doesn't want the school to go back to being "a school of 200 kids on an island," but rather become a resource center for people throughout the state.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.