At new Burlington location, this school helps deaf students create their own identity

Kera Wanielista

Skagit Valley Herald

Nikolas Graffuis and his family have spent years trying to find the right school. They tried boarding school, home school and public school, but none of those options fit the needs of the teen, who is deaf.

“A lot of deaf kids struggle in (a public school) environment because you’re learning through a third party,” said Nikolas’ mother, Cathy Graffuis. “And even though you’re surrounded by hundreds of kids, there’s very few you can connect with.”

With nowhere else to turn, Cathy Graffuis – who comes from a family of deaf people but is not deaf herself – and a small group of other parents of deaf children took matters into their own hands and founded the Salish Sea Deaf School in 2015.

“I love it,” the 16-year-old Nikolas communicated in sign language, with his mother as his interpreter. “It’s not only because it’s fun. I feel like I’m getting smarter. There’s so much more support here; it’s not like I’m missing out on chunks of my education.”

The school, which serves students in Whatcom, Skagit, Island, San Juan and parts of Snohomish counties, moved over the summer from its location in Anacortes’ Cannery Building to a larger building in Burlington.

The school is approved by the state Board of Education and the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to contract with local public schools to provide services for deaf and hard-of-hearing children.

“There is nothing for deaf education in this area,” Maria Christianson, the school’s executive director, communicated in sign language through Cathy Graffuis. “Deaf kids are historically isolated in these rural areas.”

At the new, two-story Burlington building, high school-aged students have classrooms for home economics, math and, soon, science.

“We follow a very hands-on, inquiry-based, project-based instruction,” Cathy Graffuis said. “You remember it better, you learn it.”

They also have an English classroom and a classroom devoted to American Sign Language (ASL), where students can gain a deeper understanding of the language as well as its cultural relevance.

The school provides a different environment for deaf students than public school, Christianson said, because they aren’t relying on an interpreter to know what’s happening educationally and socially.

“Here, they are talking to each other,” she signed. “There are no gaps. They’re able to talk about everyday life and what’s out there.”

It’s the kind of experience Christianson longed for as a teen, but didn’t get until her senior year of high school when she transferred to a deaf school.

“It was a mind-blowing experience for me,” she signed. “I learned so much about my own deaf identity.”

Being in a school where her classmates and her teachers all communicate in the same language has helped 15-year-old Beth McMackin be herself, she said.

“When I went to public school, I was ashamed of being deaf because I felt alone and I didn’t understand everybody – they spoke so fast and they would be done with things before I could figure out what was going on,” she said through Cathy Graffuis. “I would say (this school) fits me exactly. I understand things so much clearer, and I really like socializing with the other deaf kids.”

Currently, the school serves K-12 students, but there are plans to expand to preschool, Christianson said.

This year, the school has five students of elementary school age and four students of high school age, Cathy Graffuis said.

They’re hoping to add more.

“There are probably a lot of families who don’t know about us yet,” Cathy Graffuis said. “This is our story. These are our kids.”

On Saturday, the school will host an open house to celebrate its move to Burlington. Eventually, Christianson said, the school would like to have ASL classes for the community and family nights for students.

“I feel like this is such a unique school,” Christianson signed. “We believe that by using ASL as the primary language, we’re developing positive deaf identity, and that is a boon.”