When the New York School for the Deaf opened its doors in 1818, it was known as the New York Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb. Its simple goal was to teach deaf children the alphabet and basic language skills.
The pioneering school, which had been chartered the previous year, was housed in the shabby Almshouse for the poor and sick on Chambers Street in New York City, just behind City Hall. Today, the 200-year-old school, the country’s second-oldest school for the deaf, boasts a sprawling, modern campus on a handsome 77-acre tract in the town of Greenburgh.
A walk back through time reveals a rich history as the private, nonprofit school celebrates its bicentennial.
After being housed in a few different buildings in Lower Manhattan, the school moved in 1829 to a 10-acre site on 50th Street, where St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Saks Fifth Avenue would one day rise.
As it continued to grow and thrive, the school moved farther uptown in 1853, purchasing a wooded 37.5-acre estate in Washington Heights from James Monroe, a nephew of the fifth US president. Monroe asked that the school honor his daughter Fanny, who loved to play in the woods. And thus Fanwood, the school’s nickname to this day, was born.
In 1938, Fanwood moved into seven new buildings on Knollwood Road in Greenburgh, where an old apple farm had stood, not far from the city of White Plains.
When it relocated to Westchester, the New York School for the Deaf was a residential military school for boys, having adopted a military curriculum in 1892. Fanwood cadets first wore military uniforms in 1895, and in 1910 they formed a military band.
Starting in 1907, the focus expanded, and students at Fanwood were exposed to many vocational trades, including signmaking, sewing, metalwork, journalism, and printing.
In 1933, before its move to Westchester, the school dropped the often misunderstood words “institution” and “dumb” from its name and legally became the New York School for the Deaf.
The military aspect was dropped in 1951, and in 1954 the school began to admit girls again.
A host of prominent dignitaries and luminaries have been part of the school’s legacy. President Theodore Roosevelt visited in 1915. DeWitt Clinton, a former US senator, New York City mayor, and the state’s sixth governor, was the first president of the Board of Trustees. Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the Morse code, was a trustee in the 1860s. When the school celebrated its 75th anniversary, in 1892, Alexander Graham Bell brought 13-year-old Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan, to the festivities.
Fanwood closed its dormitories in the fall of 2003 and remains a day school. Today, the school provides a 10-month K–12 educational program, with 165 deaf or hearing-impaired students from 23 school districts across eight counties. It also offers a preschool and early-childhood program for children under 3 years old. In addition, the school bills itself as bilingual, using both written English and American Sign Language in its curriculum.
For Fanwood students, the school is an alternative to what is known as mainstreaming, or enrolling students in traditional public schools. Proponents of mainstreaming say that deaf students should not be taught separately from their hearing peers, but others contend that schools like Fanwood offer a better, more complete education that also encourages its students to socialize with other deaf students.
For most students, their education does not end when they leave the Greenburgh campus. Most graduates attend either Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, or the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, a technological college within the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Eons ago, Bill Cary majored in history at Duke University. These days, he writes about local history whenever he can.