Most Cincinnatians have heard of St. Rita School for the Deaf. Its St. Rita Fest, which it hosted for 100 years, was a local family tradition. Thousands of people attended the festival, but few have been inside the school. Those who have toured the campus and met the students have found a welcoming and technologically advanced place that teaches students academic knowledge and moral values.

“[We’re] trying to develop them to become self-sufficient, independent people so when they grow up they can give back to the community just as much as everybody else,” says Associate Executive Director Angela Frith.

Started as a residential school in 1915 where students were taught both academics and farming, St. Rita is now a pre-kindergarten through 12th grade school that teaches a full curriculum. It’s also reaching out to other special needs groups beyond the deaf—children with communication disorders like apraxia are receiving a quality education, too.

The Youngest Learners

St. Rita works with children of all ages, from six weeks old to 12th graders. The school’s LOFT (Language Opportunities for Tots) program and preschool focus on the youngest students. 

“In our preschool class [and] in our LOFT program, we have kids who are hearing, kids who are deaf and then kids who have communication needs. The hearing kids that are in are learning sign language as a second language [and] may have relatives or siblings that are deaf. The children with communication disorders like apraxia, we have kids here who are learning to develop their language, and sign language is part of that to give them the language,” says Frith. 

St. Rita uses the Montessori method to teach its young students, encouraging them to be independent and to move at their own pace. The shelves are full of activities for them to try, and once they master one task they can move onto the next. This means all students are working at their own level, even if it’s different than their peers. 

“We have one lead teacher and at least three assistants in [each classroom]. And in our LOFT classrooms we always make sure there is a deaf adult in there. There’s constant signing going on as well as voicing in the classrooms,” says Frith. “You see a lot of kids coming in not being able to verbalize and then as they’re immersed in an environment with language you can see them start to take off.”

Finding People Like Them 

Many of the children who come to the school early stay on for their grade school and middle school years. 

“Kids come to us early on and stay through high school while other kids come for just a few years. While other kids will stay with us, leave for a while and come back. It really just depends on what they need,” says Frith.

She says students that do stay with the school do so because it offers them something they can’t get anywhere else in the region. 

“[Students are] going to get that direct communication. About 98 percent of our staff can sign, so all the teachers and aides can sign, our maintenance workers know sign, our cafeteria, our school nurse. They communicate directly with that person whereas if you’re in another school you might have to go through an interpreter. You might not have an interpreter at all. So that bridges the gap for these kids and they don’t have to go through a third party,” says Frith. 

This is especially important for socialization. Being able to communicate with others allows them to make friends and relationships on their own. 

An Education Destination

St. Rita does more than bring students together, though—it also gives them a quality education they can take with them into their adult lives. It’s just done a bit differently. For example, most of the kids do not use textbooks.

“You won’t see a lot of our kids using textbooks because our teachers create a lot of what they do,” says Frith. 

Classrooms are outfitted with SMART Boards and students use iPads to do their work and communicate. Teachers create their own PowerPoint presentations, books and even textbooks. This way, they can ensure students are getting the education they need at their optimal reading level. 

“Everything they do is connected to the state standards. However there are accommodations made because [they have] IEP, Individualized Education Plans,” says Frith. “It just depends on the child and what their needs are and what goals need to be met.”

To make sure each child receives individualized attention, class sizes are kept small. Most classes have a teaching assistant along with the teacher. 

Frith says that the school’s executive director, Greg Ernst, often says that you need to do whatever it takes. “So if that reading program doesn’t work for that child, what’s your next step? You’re going to go back and you’re going to try it over again. So we have a lot of teachers that create things for our kids,” says Frith.

Solid Careers

More than 80 percent of St. Rita’s students go on to college and technical programs, but some students receive career education while still with St. Rita. The career program is designed to give multi-handicapped students life skills—such as home economics, manners and work ethics—so that they can better adapt to life outside of school.

“They do a lot of one-on-ones in the morning, they do a lot of vocabulary, budgeting, how to fill out an application, how to advocate for yourself, all of that stuff. And then in the afternoon they do on-the-job training,” says Frith. “[We’re giving them] No. 1, the self confidence, but also the necessary tools that they need so they can become independent.”

The Future

While the St. Rita Fest is no more, Ernst doesn’t see the school slowing down any time soon. He believes that the quality of the current program and teachers make the school flexible enough to meet any upcoming challenges. He even sees growth in the future. 

“In the LOFT area, you’re looking to maybe expand some of that. Because what’s happening is that the children are being identified earlier, and so they need specialization as such in the daycare setting. The other daycares are not necessarily equipped to deal with those things. That’s what we’re looking at in the next four or five years or so,” he says.

When Father Henry Waldhaus first started the school in 1915, he named it after St. Rita of Cascia, the patron saint of the impossible. Overcoming the impossible is something Frith sees every day. 

“A lot of parents come to us when their child has not been successful in other areas. They’ll come in and say, ‘Do you think you can do this?’ We’re not making any promises but we think you’re going to see a difference soon. Within weeks if not months, it might not be academically all of a sudden they’re soaring, but you see that socialization start to play. You see all the pieces start to come together,” she says.