Class from the Past

Going back to my old school.

I didn’t know much about the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf when I visited recently, but I knew plenty about the 18th century buildings that housed it. As a 1st grade student at what was Germantown Stevens Academy (GSA) in the 70s, I spent many hours in the same classrooms and walked many of the same hallways.

Like most of my classmates, I knew some of the history — that British soldiers held American prisoners in the basement of the Old Schoolhouse during the Revolutionary War and took target practice on the weathervane above the Belfry. I knew that a few British soldiers were buried on the grounds after the Battle of Germantown. More practically, I also knew that the chapel was the best place to ditch my 1st grade classes (until, of course, I got caught).

Weathervane with bullet marks.

After 45 years, I still have no idea why I played hooky there, but it was the first place on my mind when Peter Bailey, the Head of School, invited my mom and me to tour the campus.

And it was the place I recognized least when I finally walked through the chapel doors. The small one room chapel had become a large meeting hall. Only the stout oak beams overhead were familiar, giving off some of the old wood and oil soap aroma I remembered.

Funny to think I expected the place to remain the same when the campus itself has undergone so many changes and expansions since it was founded as Germantown Academy in 1759. (It was Germantown Lutheran Academy beginning in 1965, then GSA in 1973, before becoming the PA School for the Deaf in 1984.)

Still much remained familiar and Peter, in the true spirit of an educator, was curious about my memories, asking me questions while also explaining the changes the school had undergone over the years. The fact that we conversed through a sign language interpreter somehow made the translation from old to new seem less jarring as the history of one of the country’s oldest schools for the deaf came through during the tour.

In my 1st grade classroom with Mom and my 1974 report card

The idea for PSD began in 1820 when David Seixas, a crockery maker and dealer, brought 15 “uncared for” deaf children from the streets of Philadelphia into his home to provide them food, shelter, and instruction. As word of his humanitarian efforts spread and more children were enrolled, Seixas rented a building on Market Street to serve as a school. In the unfortunate language of the time, the school educated children “laboring under the privation of the faculty of speech.”

Today, it provides a high-quality education to more than 200 children from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade, relying on the latest computer and instructional technology as well as a range of services beyond education, such as occupational, speech, and physical therapy. Since PSD is one of only four private state-chartered schools in Pennsylvania, it is reimbursed by the state for most of its operating expenses and eligible youngsters attend tuition-free. But that doesn’t mean they’ve got it made – they rely on grants and donations to support their enrichment programs, technology needs, and capital expenditures.

Many of those improvements were evident as we toured the buildings and classrooms, shiny and sleek with updated construction and technology. Luckily, some of the old favorites remained. The gymnasium with its wooden collapsible bleachers took Mom back to a Christmas pageant where, arriving late, her father lifted me up onto the risers mid-performance. (“And you didn’t miss a beat,” she said laughing.) Outside the Old Schoolhouse, Peter pointed up at the Belfry where Carolyn’s camera zoomed in on the pock marks from the colonial-era bullets in the weathervane’s metal.

He walked us around the side of the building and pointed to a ground level window – “that’s where the prisons were,” he told us. “They’re a bit difficult to get into now. It’s very cramped.” Sadly, I’d have to wait ’til they finished clearing the space before I’d get my chance to revisit the scary old dungeon from my youth.

Bell tower and touring the grounds with Peter and his interpreter.

Perhaps to cheer me up, Peter took us through the door of the Schoolhouse and up several flights of stairs. Above us was the bell tower. For as much time as I’d hidden out nearby in the chapel, I’d never seen the bell tower or the long rope that hung from the clapper down to the floor. “We rarely ring the bell,” he said, “usually for special occasions or when a class graduates. But I think we can make an exception this time.” He gestured me toward the rope. I pulled down hard, the note rang loudly throughout the space — what an unexpected thrill!

Still all smiles, we made our way to my old 1st grade classroom. Nothing about the space outside the room was familiar – a new wing leading up to the door disoriented me completely — but the classroom itself had barely changed at all. It was the same blackboard I’d had to write on a hundred times when I did something wrong. Even the desks seemed the same. The only thing missing was Mr. Schultz in his black suit and tie, handing me a homework assignment. The room seemed much smaller as Mom and I sat in the chairs for a quick photo, my 1974 report card in hand.

The memory faded when we stepped outside to the athletic field and saw a sports facility in the distance that had been an empty field in my day. Peter told us about more upgrades that were on the way to the field and his plan to reach out to the community to build support for them. “We’d like our neighbors to use it too. When you make big changes like this, it’s important to keep in touch with the community and grow together.” he said. Couldn’t agree more.

Volunteers Needed

On Friday, Sept 14, from 8am to 4pm, PSD is building a playground for their Elementary School (Rain Date: Monday, Sept 17). They will replace all of the old play equipment with a top of the line, ADA compliant, and colorful playground. Spend a few hours on Friday, Sept 14 as a volunteer (with your power tools, shovel and rake, or just a smile) and show PSD’s students what community-building and teamwork are all about. Contact or call V: 215-754-4770 – to find out how you can make a difference.

Get Into the Swing

PSD will host its 1st Annual Golf Outing at Sandy Run Country Club in Oreland on Oct 15. Have fun on a beautiful course while helping support PSD students. For more info or to register, visit

About the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf

Founded in 1820, Pennsylvania School for the Deaf educates deaf and hard-of-hearing students from birth to age 21. The school helps students succeed by recognizing and developing individual strengths, building confidence, collaborating with families and communities in a nurturing, dynamic, and language-rich environment steeped in cultural awareness of Deaf, Hearing, and worldwide diversity.

100 West School House Ln.

Philadelphia PA 19144

V: (215) 951-4700


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