Student teacher Mary Kok and her Developmental Language class of Iroquois Middle School.

Celebrating the History of Oral Deaf education in West Michigan

In 1899, a small group of passionate Grand Rapids educators began a program to help teach students who are deaf and hard of hearing.

With $150 per child funding from the Michigan Legislature, a day school using the oral method of teaching was established by legislator and Grand Rapids attorney, Sybrant Wesselius. The oral method teaches students who are deaf and hard of hearing to develop spoken language and listening through technology and observation. He wanted his deaf daughter to learn to communicate without having to send her away for her education.

He brought famed hearing-impaired teacher Margaret Sullivan from Milwaukee to organize the school. A short time later, she opened the school with 16 students and a second teacher in a building on Division Avenue between Crescent and Lyon. The school would later become a service building for the Grand Rapids Public Schools.

The school was moved to Ottawa Hills High School in 1925 and was housed over time at Alger School, Sigsbee Elementary and Shawnee Park Elementary. Junior and senior high programs were also added at Burton Junior High, Union High School, Iroquois Middle School and Ottawa Hills.

In 2019, the Grand Rapids Oral Deaf program officially became part of Kent ISD, which also teaches a Total Communication program for students who are deaf and hard of hearing. The Total Communication program teaches American Sign Language and other verbal and non-verbal communication skills.

Today, the Kent ISD Oral Deaf program occupies part of North Oakview Elementary. 



Fast Facts


  • In 1938, Grand Rapids was one of the first school districts in the country to provide hearing aids in classrooms.
  • The Grand Rapids Oral Deaf Program was twice named the Alexander Graham Bell "Program of the Year" - 1979, 1997
  • The first Grand Rapids Oral Deaf student to receive a cochlear implant was in 1988. The second was in 1989. Between 1990 and 1993, nine more students received implants.
  • Miss America, Heather Whitestone, visited Shawnee Park School in 1995. She became deaf from a fever when she was a child. She learned ballet by memorizing the feel of the beats of the music on the floor.
  • There are currently about 120 students in the Kent ISD program, including 15 in the Early On Program. There are currently 15 staff members.
  • The Kent ISD Oral Deaf program focuses on teaching deaf and hard-of-hearing students means of developing spoken language and listening through technology and observation. The Total Communication program focuses on teaching students American Sign Language and self-identity in deaf culture.
  • In 2000, all staff began training using the Auditory Verbal Training Approach. Since then, 50% of the staff have received Auditory Verbal Certification as LSL Specialists through the Alexander Graham Bell Academy.


Current Program Photos

In 1979, the Grand Rapids Oral Deaf Commemorative Committee created a historical booklet to commemorate 80 of service to the community. Shawnee Park Teacher Consultant Betty Jane Genger wrote a detailed history of the program for the publication.

The Grand Rapids Oral Deaf Program - Our Eightieth Year

In 1999, the 100th Anniversary Committee of the Grand Rapids Oral Deaf program commissioned another historical booklet, this time created by Sarah Bushnell and Jackie Van Kampen at the Kent Career Technical Center. The 100th Anniversary celebrated "The Age of Technology".

The Grand Rapids Oral Deaf Program One-Hundredth Anniversary: The Age of Technology