Mariah Potter is a spokeswoman of sorts for Blossom Montessori School for the Deaf.
The 14-year-old student government president has written and delivered speeches at Habitat for Humanity dedication ceremonies since 2005, the year her school began donating bookshelves and children's books to new homeowners. Remarkable for a child once labeled severely learning disabled and ineducable.
Potter, who is hard of hearing, will graduate from eighth grade at Blossom on June 4, and enter North Side Christian School as a freshman.
"She came to us with her big brown eyes and said, 'Teach me,' " said Carol Downing, 49, associate director of Blossom Montessori. "And we did."
Blossom Montessori is one of only two schools in the country with a Montessori curriculum for deaf children and the only one in Florida.
The school, at 14088 Icot Blvd. in Largo, has 22 students, ranging in age from 21/2 to 15.
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Ericka Cook, 13, of Palm Harbor interrupted her free time on the playground to sign that she enjoyed reading and learning about language. She added that she wanted to teach reading to deaf kids one day so they would really understand language. Then she smiled and ran off to swing.
Her dad, Erik Cook, 41, of Palm Harbor has three children enrolled in Blossom and embraces the program.
"Blossom gives a child a chance at a much-needed education without feeling different," said Cook, whose other children are Christina, 12, and Tyler, 14. "They have community involvement, participating in Habitat for Humanity. It's more than a school. It's a building block for life."
School life will soon resemble life in the general community more than ever.
Until recently, enrollment at Blossom was restricted to the deaf, hard of hearing, children of deaf adults and those with hard-of-hearing or deaf siblings. And though deaf children remain the school's focus, Blossom has opened its doors to all students.
"This is the future," said Downing, who lives in St. Petersburg. "Putting kids together to learn from each other and with each other."
In order to learn, play and enjoy each other, the children must be able to communicate. So all students, both deaf and hearing, learn American Sign Language from day one.
At Blossom, signing is considered a second language after English. Teachers communicate with students both ways.
"When it comes to teaching, we are willing to try whatever it takes," Downing said. "If a child's not learning, we teach a different way. Customization is one benefit of a smaller school."
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Julie Rutenberg, 32, of Belleair Shore founded the school in 2003 and is the school's director.
She is proud of creating a learning environment where children thrive. She believes the staff's commitment is a big part of why her school has flourished.
"They understand the level of dedication it takes to give students undivided attention," she said, pointing to a recent weekend. "We took 10 students, all Girl Scouts, to Disney for the day. My staff willingly gives up nights and weekends to work with the children."
Those teachers say they have high expectations of their students, but students have even higher expectation of themselves.
Staff members credit their success with the deaf population to an understanding of the challenges a deaf child has with hearing parents and a hearing child has with deaf parents when they return home.
Whether a student is hard of hearing or has full hearing capabilities, Blossom teachers give one-on-one time to each child.
From preschoolers to middle school, the education is hands-on.
Classrooms look similar to those of a traditional school, but there are no desks and the way children learn is much different.
While there are computers, pencils, paper, bulletin boards and a library, there are more enticing learning tools.
Colorful blocks as a system to learn math, soft sand for little fingers to write letters of the alphabet, and geometric shapes symbolize grammar.
"To follow the Montessori curriculum is to follow the child," Downing said. "There are no barriers at this school. The kids know we're behind them academically, morally and socially.
"We're here to give a child a chance and give parents a choice. We want to be one of the schools parents consider when they want to place their child."
Cassandra Brown, 29, of Largo thought carefully before enrolling her two sons, Edward, 13, and Elon, 8.
"Blossom has been the best educational decision that I could have chosen for Edward, my hard-of-hearing son, as well as his hearing brother," Brown said. "Enrolling my children at Blossom allowed them to be educated together despite the difference in their degree of hearing. …
"I have seen them bloom academically and with confidence."