Dr. Martin Florsheim: Visionary in Educating Deaf & Hearing Children
Great strides are being made in the field of special and general education, at School “47,” American Sign Language and English School.
The needs of hearing and non-hearing children are equally addressed. As a dual language program, hearing children can learn American Sign Language (ASL) as a second language; non-hearing children can learn English as a second language while communicating by signing with their teachers. Underscoring the learning environment is the humanistic element of immersion of hearing and non-hearing children, fostering a true understanding of each other’s cultures, and paving the way for a more inclusive society. This powerful vision is the brainchild of Dr. Martin Florsheim. Even though we spoke through interpreters, Dr. Florsheim’s enthusiasm was evident as he spoke to us about the history and evolution of the school and his own rich educational background.
Dr. Florsheim has been principal of “47” for ten years. Its history dates back to the early 1900’s—a richly ornamented lobby grandfather clock dedicated in 1908 to the first principal, Margaret Regan attests to this; it has been on East 23rd Street in Manhattan since its inception. Under the tutelage of Dr. Florsheim, the school has a new dynamic. Originally a school exclusively for deaf students, five years ago a pilot program for a dual language program was implemented, allowing hearing kids to attend, which included children of deaf adults and children with deaf siblings. Results were highly positive, with a large jump in student population. The successful program soon gave way to the school being transferred from District 75 to Region 9 to accommodate its new role as a community school.
At School 47 there is a low student-teacher ratio, a regents track—with ASL now recognized as a language by the board of regents—as well as college preparatory classes. After-school tutoring is available in addition to support services in speech, physical and occupational therapy. School clubs include weight lifting, a talent club, and students can participate in sports games through the Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL).
There is a school-to-work program for high school aged children who are educationally deprived or language delayed; they are given a special curriculum to prepare them for the world of work. Students have an opportunity to work in the maintenance sector and develop a sense of where they would like to work in the future.
Currently there are students working at Banana Republic, 14th St. Y, and Fedcap, a non-profit organization which assists individuals with disabilities in joining the workforce with jobs at venues like the Long Island Railroad.
Florsheim thinks in terms of the long-term success of his students: “Students need to experience the world. It’s important for them to go out and see what’s out there. It broadens their horizons.” Of this year’s first graduating class, nine will be heading out to the workforce, and six are going to college—four deaf students will be attending Gallaudet University and two hearing students will attend CUNY.
Florsheim believes that deaf students can do all that hearing students can. In fact, in the classroom at School 47, non-hearing students have been known to outperform the hearing students. Florsheim’s philosophy regarding education and life stems from his upbringing; the son of two deaf parents, he was witness to their successful navigation through life. They imparted an important philosophy: “It doesn’t matter that you are deaf; don’t be afraid, just move on.”
His first school experience was at the Lexington School for the Deaf—which was located at the site of the present day Hunter College. During his teen years he decided that “the school wasn’t challenging enough” and went on to attend William Cullen Bryant High School in Queens, the “same school that Chancellor Klein went to,” Florsheim warmly recalls.
After three years there, the adventurous Florsheim decided to move to California. It was “Go west young man,” Florsheim recounted with a twinkle in his eyes. Earning his bachelor’s degree from Cal State University with a degree in political science, Florsheim moved to a teaching position at the North Carolina School for the Deaf shortly followed by a master’s degree in education from New York University. He then moved to Buffalo, NY where he was hired as a supervising teacher—a position tantamount to assistant principal—at St. Mary’s School for the Deaf. Relentless in his own pursuit of education, Florsheim went to SUNY Buffalo for his doctoral degree.
Asked about his vision for the future, he hopes to expand programs for greater numbers of deaf students. Currently there are two hearing students for every deaf student. In his unending dedication to education and his optimistic vision in life, Dr. Florsheim is an inspirational leader and role model for all students and educators.#