When Aailia Ameen’s family decided to relocate to Chicago from Georgia, her sons Rajonne and Kajonne Townsell began researching schools. The two brothers, both deaf, attended public schools in Georgia but looked for new opportunities in Illinois. When they asked their mother to take a tour of the Illinois School for the Deaf (ISD) in Jacksonville, she was hesitant at first. The school tour ultimately impressed the family and the boys decided to enroll.
ISD is home to 150 residential students who live on campus and 48 day students who reside in Jacksonville or the surrounding areas and are transported every day to classes. The school also supports 41 students in their 0-3 program who receive home-based services. Students attend from all over the state of Illinois, from as far north as Antioch and Waukegan and as far south as Carbondale and Marion.
Enrolling her sons in the residential program at ISD concerned Aailia at first, but in retrospect, she says, “They have really enjoyed the school and I enjoy all of the opportunities they have.” Dorm life has helped her sons develop independence and Aailia applauds the school for helping the students learn important life skills. While living in the dorms, the Townsell brothers spent their weekdays in Jacksonville and then came home on some weekends, as well as holidays and summers.
On campus living at ISD provides a safe, caring environment for students. The ratio of students to staff in the dormitories is about 1 to 3 and recreation directors provide evening and weekend activities such as movie nights, skating, and bowling. Students go home for the weekends on vans or chartered buses, accompanied by staff. Student rooms look similar to college dorm rooms and each wing and floor has its own kitchen and cozy living room area.
Aailia appreciated knowing that the ISD staff members “treat kids like family” and “give them a nurturing life.” The school also offers a teen center, swimming pool, extra-curricular activities, and, according to Aailia, “every game you can possibility think of.” The distance could be hard on their family, but they appreciated video calls and traveling to Jacksonville when possible to attend the boys sporting events and club activities.
Gwenn Eyer chose ISD for her daughter Valerie because of its “language rich environment.” Valerie attends classes at ISD and lives at home with her parents at their local bed and breakfast. After 25 year in the same house and town, the Eyers took a leap of faith and moved to Jacksonville for Valerie’s education. The family quickly came to love their new community and greatly appreciate being a part of a “community of inclusion.”
The Eyer family decided to relocate to Jacksonville because “we were committed to having Valerie’s needs met academically.” They appreciate ISD’s unique focus on language development and emphasis on creating an accessible bilingual community. This environment strives to meet the social and emotional needs of students and is able to nurture individuals who are both bilingual and bicultural.
Both Gwenn and Aailia appreciate the support ISD provides for the families of their students, as well. The school is committed to helping connect parents both in the area and at a distance with language classes and other resources. ISD is a “small environment,” Gwenn explains, “where everyone knows each other and looks out for each other.”
The Ameen family ultimately moved to Jacksonville last August because the family wanted to be together throughout the week and the weekend travel could be exhausting for the boys. “We were missing the boys games, etc.,” Aailia explains, “so we just dropped everything and moved. We took a chance.”
The Jacksonville community warmly welcomed their family, and they soon found housing and jobs. “We have a lot of faith,” Aailia says. “If I’m doing the right thing, I assume everything is going to work out.”
Rajonne and Kajonne continue to be very engaged on campus, even though they now live at home and enjoy spending time with their friends and extended ISD family. Valerie also appreciates the family atmosphere at ISD and especially enjoys the delicious school lunches. When the dormitories host parties or special activities, they always invite all students to participate. Gwenn credits this to ISD’s focus on caring for residential students and to the staff making the school “feel like home.”
Gwenn believes that the larger Jacksonville area itself also does an excellent job supporting the students of ISD. In Jacksonville, she says, “being deaf is normalized.” Valerie knows the servers at Ponderosa and the employees at Walmart who use sign language. She is also socially connected to hearing students and enjoys socializing with the visitors to her family’s bed and breakfast, Blessings on State.
Gwenn’s goal is to provide her daughter with a multi-faceted education that helps her discover resources and tools to help her make informed choices for her future. She chose ISD for Valerie’s education because it provides a unique environment where Valerie’s hearing needs are “just one facet of who she is, not a disability,” Gwenn says. The students at the school are inspiring, Gwenn explains, “making the best of the world that they have,” and actively participating in academics, sports, and clubs.