Imagine failing to respond to your own name.
Imagine going through school smiling and nodding and hoping nobody can see how little you really understand. Imagine struggling to survive school because it is not accessible.
Unfortunately, this is a reality for many students today. I know because this was my experience. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
At the Kendall Demonstration Elementary School (KDES) in Washington, D.C., which serves students who are deaf and hard of hearing from birth to the eighth grade, Principal Debra Trapani strives to implement a philosophy of equity, acceptance, and celebration of diversity in every classroom. I recently had the privilege to shadow Debra during the Department of Education’s Principal Shadowing Week, and the stark difference from my own experience as a deaf student to the culture created for the students at this school was shocking. KDES is based on a foundation of bilingualism and biculturalism, promoting the equal usage of American Sign Language and English. Students here are proud to be deaf and hard of hearing, and of the culture and language that surrounds them.
Working in a school where every student has an individualized education plan, or IEP, may seem like a challenge to some educators, yet Debra looks at it as an opportunity. She is constantly moving from classroom to classroom, working with her teachers to support differentiated instruction that meets the needs of students, and encouraging her teachers to try new things. Collaboration is the key, Debra explained, crediting much of her school’s positive and welcoming culture to her leadership team and teachers.
As a deaf principal, Debra is a role model to her students, all of whom are determined to go on to college and have successful careers. These are dreams that might not have been possible years ago without the legislative turning points that were the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
As the nation celebrates IDEA’s 40th anniversary, it’s important to realize how far we’ve come. For example, in 1970, only one in five children with disabilities was educated in public schools. Today, more than 6.5 million students receive special education services. However, there is still much to be done to ensure each student is able to reach his or her maximum potential. Looking at schools like KDES can help show us what is possible.
Jacqueline Wunderlich is an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education and junior at Gallaudet University.