Coming to fruition

Michael Smith
Oklahoma School for the Deaf students Isiah Holt and April Pennel speak to reporters and guests on Wednesday. The students used American Sign Language for their comments, which were then spoken by interpreters.

SULPHUR — During a groundbreaking event for a new aquatic center at the Oklahoma School for the Deaf, key lawmakers and Department of Rehabilitation Services members behind the project gave high praise for the school. Students used American Sign Language to reminisce about swim lessons at the former pool, which closed in 2011, and much needed upgrades for a century-old campus.

A common name invoked by multiple speakers during the event, however, was that of former OSD superintendent Larry Hawkins. “Former OSD Superintendent Larry Hawkins was committed to the reclamation and reopening of the OSD pool to benefit educational and recreational programming for the students of OSD,” said current OSD superintendent Chris Dvorak, who is not deaf but uses ASL while on campus.

“To Larry, bringing the OSD pool back to life would be a revival of the shared experience that our local community and Deaf community enjoyed together for many generations.”

Nearly a year after the death of Hawkins, his commitment to that shared experience is now coming to fruition. The public was able to get a first glimpse of the state-of-the-art facility on Wednesday, and Dvorak had a simple message for students in attendance:

“When you come in the fall back to school, make sure that you pack a swimsuit,” he said using ASL which was translated into speech by an interpreter, a statement students responded to with raucous cheers.

The legislature last year made $2.38 million available to the Department of Rehabilitation for the project with surplus funds. Information provided at the event shows plans for a 10,000 square foot facility that will include concession areas, restrooms, and two locker rooms. Locker rooms will also serve as emergency shelters during severe weather events.

According to the department's communications director Jody Harlan, schools submit specific needs to the legislature each year for consideration and money may be allocated for approved projects. “Something like a new building is a different animal,” she said as she described the process of securing support from lawmakers.

Oklahoma House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said his first experience with OSD dates back to the early 1980s and junior high school basketball games. He thinks his personal experience goes to show the importance of athletics for OSD students. “Just as my personal experience brought me to the school through athletics, this facility will also welcome those in the community,” McCall said.

Department of Rehabilitation Executive Director Melinda Fruendt had plenty of praise for McCall and Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Springer, who was also in attendance. “By receiving your continued support, our school campus...continues to offer an academic environment set with high standards for Deaf (sic) and hard-of-hearing students without barriers to communication,” she said.

The new aquatic center will provide more than a swimming location for students. “Our school is specialized, and by that I mean we provide our students full access to sign language,” Dvorak said through an ASL interpreter. “For example, in a traditional public school, communication is lacking at times,” he said. “We provide a natural environment for them here.”

The school campus is full of items that are not found in traditional schools. These items supplement or replace items, like bells or other audible devices, that non-deaf people may take for granted. In October 2019, the school upgraded outdoor lighting to better facilitate communication after dark. Aside from the new aquatic center, Dvorak said the site of the former pool will soon be the location of a dedicated robotics lab.

For student April Pennel, a specialized aquatic center means the possibility of an OSD swim team in the future. “It’s been around eight years since the pool closed down,” she said through an interpreter. “I remember swimming lessons in PE class...and now we can continue to teach swimming lessons,” she said.

Student Isiah Holt recognized the work and dedication of Hawkins to update the historic campus. “You may not realize it, but this is the first new building on our campus in over 100 years,” he said through an interpreter.