J. Michael Kearsey

On a curvy spot of SE Holgate, between Grout Elementary and Memory Lane Motors, another school is set back on the south side of the street; a very special school.

The Tucker-Maxon School is one of America’s progressive centers for children who are deaf or hard of hearing and one of only two schools that has a full mix of children with hearing impairments and without.

Students range from pre-school (aka Childswork) to 5th graders ready to assimilate into middle school. In 1975, Tucker-Maxon was one of the first private schools to be approved by Oregon’s Department of Education and in 1990, the International Organization honored the program for the Education of the Hearing Impaired. The school’s progressive approach has certainly worked wonders for its alumnae. Families have moved from as far away as New Orleans and North Dakota to enroll their children, though the bulk of its 105 students are from Portland.

Hearing issues occur in any and all types of families. As shown in the film Mr. Holland’s Opus, even a caring parent and music teacher may find the challenges of a deaf child difficult.

Portland attorney Paul Bolley, whose daughter lost her hearing due to meningitis, founded Tucker-Maxon in 1947 with classrooms in his own home. Bolley met deaf instructor, Alice Maxon, at the Hosford School for the Deaf (now Hosford Middle School) and with the help of benefactor Max Tucker of Cascade Plywood, the school found a permanent home on Holgate for its 18 students in 1953. That building was designed by one of the world’s leading architects, Pietro Belluschi, whose work includes the Pan Am building in New York, The Oregonian building, Portland Art Museum and St. Phillip Neri Church on the southern edge of Ladd’s Addition.

School Director Karen Rossi and coordinator Patty Smith offered The Southeast Examiner a tour of the facilities and a chance to meet some students. Once controversial in the education of deaf children, students at Tucker-Macon do not use sign language. With the help of assistive technologies and trained professionals, they listen, talk and learn like their typical hearing peers.

“We have 13 full-time teachers, 10 staff and a wonderful music teacher, Andy Fort, who is here two days week,” Smith notes. “We have a full-time speech pathologist to evaluate students and work to develop intelligible speech. We have an audiologist who advises families on personal cochlear gear and helps with an FM system in the classroom that gives hearing impaired kids the same boosted instructor’s voice as the students without hearing issues. All children can be learning on the same level and not missing a word.”

Two children were proud to recall a recent vocal presentation at a school talent show. Exuberant and talkative, i one girl had a bit of barely-noticeable headgear beneath her tussled hair. She had been born deaf and was using cochlear implant technology, an emerging approach for families who choose technology over sign language.

In 1984, Tucker-Maxon student Peter Folkston was only the 96th person in the world to undergo cochlear implantation surgery, which gained FDA approval in 1992. Although some students use a simple hearing aid, a cochlear implant is a bionic device placed inside the ear directly stimulating the auditory nerve. External parts pick up the sound and young students hear everything their classmates hear.

Listening and speech-production skills are further aided with the help of “Baldi,” a dome-headed, talking, computer-generated face whose lips, eyes and facial expressions add meaning to the words “spoken” by the computer, enhancing the student’s fluency. This technology and the school itself was a topic of ABC TV’s Prime Time in 2001.

In addition to Art, Phys Ed and Music, Tucker-Maxon has chosen an aggressive curriculum with respected Singapore Math, Super Kids and SRA reading program and a student to teacher ratio of 7 to 1. There is also a big playground, organic school gardens and open range coops for sheep, turkeys, and chickens whose eggs are gathered by the students.

“We will be having a few upcoming events to increase awareness as we celebrate our 65th anniversary,” according to Director Rossi. “Our anniversary celebration, dinner and auction is on April 27.”

She offered the quote from Helen Keller which is above the front door of the school: “Speech is the birthright of every child. It is the deaf child’s one fair chance to keep in touch with his fellows.”

It is a poignant reminder how the opportunities have grown from Keller’s 19th century struggles to a school who graduates students who may have once been cloistered from the world.

Tucker-Maxon has certainly changed lives and continues to grow and bring exceptional, well-educated children into our community.

The Tucker-Maxon School’s Open House is April 18, 4 pm at the School, 2860 SE Holgate Blvd. Portland, OR 97202