Making a Difference in the Lives of Deaf Students

With 100 students enrolled, St. Mary’s School for the Deaf boasts a 91 percent attendance rate and a 100 percent graduation rate, with students going on to become engineers, social workers, accountants and more

By Nancy Cardillo

When Lauren and John Bronneberg’s daughter, Julia, was born, she passed all her newborn screening tests, including the hearing tests. But Lauren and John, who had a healthy 5-year-old son at the time, knew something wasn’t right.

It would be three and a half years before they got the correct diagnosis: Julia had no auditory nerve. She was profoundly deaf, and would never be able to detect sound at all. Lauren and John had been working with Buffalo Hearing and Speech Center, and the staff recommended the Bronnebergs contact St. Mary’s School for the Deaf.

“Tim Kelly, who was St. Mary’s director of pupil personnel services at the time, gave us a tour in June of 2007,” said Lauren. “My husband immediately said to me, ‘Our daughter will graduate from this school!’ I was a bit more hesitant, but once I had a confirmed diagnosis, I was all in. St. Mary’s truly was what was best for Julia, and in just a few weeks after being enrolled there, she was able to communicate with us via sign language. She was 3 1/2, and it was our first real experience communicating with our daughter. We were thrilled.”

Lauren, her husband and son all learned American Sign Language at St. Mary’s soon after.

Julia is now 14 and still attends St. Mary’s as a day student. “She loves school and she is thriving,” says Lauren, who serves on the school’s board of trustees and is a member of the Parent Teacher Organization. “She calls St. Mary’s her ‘happy place,’ and looks forward to going there every day. We live in Cattaraugus, which means over an hour’s bus ride for her each way.”

“People ask us why we didn’t mainstream Julia,” says Lauren. “That would have involved a special teacher of the deaf as well as an interpreter, and she still wouldn’t be able to communicate with everyone. At St. Mary’s, she can communicate easily with all the faculty, staff and students, and everyone’s treated the same. I don’t know what we’d have done if we hadn’t found St. Mary’s.”

Over a century of service to the deaf community.

St. Mary’s School for the Deaf was founded in 1853 by Buffalo’s Bishop Timon. Originally located on Edward Street (at Elmwood), the school moved to its present location on 12 acres at 2253 Main St. (near Dewey) in 1898. It was the first academic high school for the deaf in the country, and one of the first to have a preschool program for the deaf. The 2018-2019 academic year marks St. Mary’s 166th year serving the deaf community as a private, state-supported school.

Currently, there are 100 students enrolled at St Mary’s, which serves the eight counties of Western New York. Thirty are residential students, living on campus Monday through Friday. The other students commute daily, most via buses provided by their school district.

“We work directly with more than 50 school districts throughout Western New York,” says Timothy Kelly, who was promoted to superintendent of the school in 2009. “We are a ‘Child First!’ school, meaning every decision we make is made in the best interest of our students. Period. We are fortunate to have a highly qualified dedicated staff committed to ensuring each student reaches his or her fullest potential — while they’re at St. Mary’s and once they graduate.”

“There is no tuition charge for our students. We have been state-funded since 1874,” says Kelly. “The school districts pay for students to attend our school and are reimbursed by New York state.”

The criteria to attend St. Mary’s include a minimum 80-decibel hearing loss (55 for infants). Twenty decibels is the norm for hearing individuals and, as an example, the noise from a lawnmower is 80 decibels and an airplane taking off is 115 decibels.

Programs for children of all ages.

St. Mary’s offers academic programming for students from birth through age 21. Its comprehensive curriculum aligns with all New York state learning standards, and it is one of just 24 deaf programs in the country to receive national accreditation. St. Mary’s offers a language-rich environment by providing students the necessary tools to think, learn and communicate through American Sign Language and English.

The school embraces all methods of communication, including amplification (hearing aids, cochlear implants and assistive technology); speech; auditory training; sign language; speech reading; voice; written English and visual imagery. This approach affords all students 100 percent communication access.

Students are assessed on a regular basis at St. Mary’s, which boasts an 8:1 student/teacher ratio.

“We work closely with each student,” says Scott Gentzke, associate principal and dean of students/director of residential services, who is deaf. “If they want to go to college, we’ll help them get there. If they want to be a chef, we’ll help get them into a culinary program.”

St. Mary’s boasts a 91 percent attendance rate and a 100 percent graduation rate, with students going on to become engineers, social workers, accountants and more.

In addition to its academic curriculum, St. Mary’s also offers athletic, after-school and summer programs. Students are also encouraged to participate in community service projects.

“At St. Mary’s, we believe all children can learn, and that deaf students have the right to a warm, safe, healthy and positive environment at school, and we work hard every day to inspire all our students to achieve their personal goals while striving for excellence,” says Kelly.

Julia Bronneberg is an example of St. Marys’ success. Not only is she on the honor roll and at the top of her class, she’s on track to graduate at age 18 and plans to go to college. “She’s overcome the obstacles of living in the hearing world,” says Lauren. “She’s exceeded every expectation, and is a smart, sensitive, well-rounded young lady. We are very proud of all Julia’s accomplishments. She has a wonderful future ahead of her, and we will always be grateful to St. Mary’s. This school will always be part of our family.”

Deaf Awareness Week is September 24-30

For a list of events taking place at St. Mary’s School, for more information about St. Mary’s School for the Deaf or to learn more about its free hearing evaluations, visit or call 834.7200.