EVENDALE, Ohio -- St. Rita School for the Deaf is celebrating 100 years of educating deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Offering both a day school and residential program, St. Rita was one of the first of its kind in the country.
The school has been celebrating all year with a float in various parades across Cincinnati, including the Reds opening day parade. The Catholic school’s Hands of Love choir has signed the national anthem at Cyclones and Florence Freedom games. A special centennial mass and burying of a time capsule will take place today and the celebrations will wrap up with a Nov. 14 scholarship benefit.
In 1914, Archbishop Henry Moeller ordained Father Henry Waldhaus and asked him to care for the deaf in the Diocese of Cincinnati. With the help of the Knights of del’Epee and the Saints Mary and Joseph Society, Waldhaus raised the funds to purchase two farms for the school on 235 acres.
Opening in 1915 with only 11 students and three staff members, St. Rita began providing academic and vocational training to deaf students in the area. The program was immersive and students in the early days tended the farm as part of their studies and lived in dormitories at the school.
The first annual “visiting Sunday” picnic was held in 1916 to invite visitors to learn about the school. This event evolved into St. Rita Fest, which is still held each year in the summer.
“Having the festival allows the community to be aware of us and to know that their money is going to a good cause,” said Gregory Ernst, St. Rita's executive director.
The current school building – visible from Interstate 75 – was constructed in the early 1920s. A high school wing was added in 1957 using money from the sale of part of the property for the development of I-75. St. Rita currently occupies 35 acres.
In 1983, the school began enrolling day students along with residential students. Previously, all students lived on campus.
“The early philosophy was one of total immersion. The reasoning was that their home was isolating for the students,” Ernst said. “In the 1980s, there was a cultural change. Parents became more educated and picked up sign language to help the child, so when the kids came home they were not isolated in the area of communication.”
Changing with the times
St. Rita evolved throughout the years. An infant program was added to the k-12 school in 1992 as a result of teachers requesting day care for their hearing children. Parents were also requesting services for younger children as early hearing tests improved and hearing loss or deafness were diagnosed earlier. Hearing and deaf children attend together and teachers use American Sign Language along with the spoken word.
Today, St. Rita serves many deaf students who also have another disability and they have resources to assist those children, Ernst said. They also have students who may be able to hear but have other communication problems.
Enrollment has remained fairly steady in recent years. This year, 175 students attend the school and most are day students, although five students are still utilizing the residential program. Several decades ago when school options were more limited, students came from all over the country and they even had a few international kids, Ernst said. Now, almost all of the student population comes from the Tri-state area.
The school is a member of the United Way and the volunteers in the community help the school thrive -- along with the festival and many other fundraising activities comprising 40 percent of the annual budget, Ernst said.
Advances in technology have changed the classrooms at St. Rita for the better. While many traditional school administrators bemoan their students’ texting habits, smartphones are an asset for students with hearing issues.
“It allows for the child to function is a more normal way in their personal lives because the communication barriers are lessened,” Ernst said. “If they can communicate back and forth, it gives the child or the graduate more opportunities to participate as a member of society.”
Eileen Chambers, a teacher at the school and also an alumna, said she returned to St. Rita because she wanted to give students a deaf role model.
“I wanted to provide that encouragement and that challenge for them and to show that anything is possible,” Chambers said.