Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf

Rich in History. High in Achievement.

Belleville is home to Sir James Whitney School, one of North America’s oldest schools for the Deaf, opening its doors on October 20, 1870. This past October, SJW held a celebration to commemorate its 140th anniversary. One of my all time favourite grade school memories was touring this amazing school with my grade six class from St. Michael’s Academy almost 30 years ago. Recently, I was privileged to visit it once more.

“The school was founded through the persistent efforts of John Barrett McGann, an Irish immigrant and educator,” says Gary Wheeler, a representative with the Ministry of Education. McGann was a pioneer of deaf education. The school is named after the former premier of Ontario, James Whitney, who was known for his advances in education. 

Crossing onto the grounds and up the long circular drive, you can feel the rich history this school and the vast grounds hold. This history includes a self-sustaining community that at one time incorporated a farm, orchards, and a hospital into its plan. Although no longer in use, the building housing Gibson Hospital (1894) still stands on the grounds today. The original school was lost to a fire and rebuilt in 1920 in the Tudor-Gothic Revival style, with brick walls outlined by smooth stone quoins giving the building an exterior of amazing strength. The leafy vine that clasps and climbs the bricks softens the school and gives it that prestigious ivy look.

The interior reception is complete with traditional and elegant wainscoting; marble floors can be found throughout the school as well as deep crown moldings. New technology is craftily integrated into this old building. Flat screens are everywhere you look broadcasting at all times upcoming school events, important student news and they double as a security resource should it be needed for warnings or emergency alerts. This balance of old and new is in line with the schools model of being grounded in rich history while at the same time being progressive and advanced.

“SJW uses a bilingual – bicultural approach to educating students who are Deaf. This approach promotes American Sign Language (ASL) as the first language of instruction and English as the second language”, says Gary. This bilingual method is vividly apparent as walking through the halls, students and faculty alike are signing and speaking at the same time. The cafeteria is like any other, full of happy chatter, laughter but with the added sign language. While the education component is of utmost import, the school also runs an impressive extra curricular program including everything from hip hop dance classes, Student Parliament and snowboarding, to name a few.

The school bears a military aspect to it. Jim Harrington, Acting Principal, notes that during the Second World War from 1939 to 1944, the school was taken over as a training facility for the Royal Canadian Air Force. Staff and students were relocated out into the community boarding with local families and the school set up temporary classrooms in buildings around the city. War memorabilia lines the hall heading to the archives.

The archives are full of stories. In 1972, the well-known Canadian author, Farley Mowat, hand delivered to SJW School a present, a crossbreed of Labrador and Newfoundland water dog, and she was deaf. Her name was Alice Mowat Whitney and she was a loved school mascot.

The school archives also holds the many sports awards won over the years. At times, the student enrollment at the school would reach close to 400, enabling them to put together teams in numerous athletic sports and competing at the Provincial level in COSSA volleyball, rugby, track, hockey and more.

Many notable alumni hold their place in the archives including Samuel Thomas Greene. Greene was born in the United States in 1843, and graduated from the National Deaf Mute College (now known as Gallaudet University) in Washington DC. He moved to Belleville to teach at SJW, and is noted as the first deaf teacher ever to teach in Ontario. He is also one of the founding members of the Ontario Association of the Deaf (1886). Greene died in 1890 at the early age of 47 as a result of injuries sustained in an ice boating accident on the Bay of Quinte. A life sized oil portrait of Greene hangs in the landing heading to the second floor in the main building.

Another notable is remembered by a life-sized oil painting by John Wycliffe Lowes on that same landing, a portrait of Robert Mathison. Superintendent of SJW for 27 years from 1879 to 1906, Mathison was devoted to the school and to the education of the Deaf.

A display case under these portraits holds linoprints, printing stamps and copies of the school newspaper. A Printing Department was established in Wood Hall, and it published the schools very own newspaper, The Canadian Mute, whose first issue was produced in February 1892.

The Boy Scouts lease out a portion of one of the buildings on the property and house an immense collection of Scout memorabilia. This ‘Scout Museum’ is where I found out about the honoured Queen Scout, Clifton Carbin. Clifton is quite a notable SJW alumnus. He went on to get his Doctor of Laws degree from Gallaudet University, has a long career involvement with many schools for the Deaf and has written many books including one on John Barrett McGann, and one on Samuel Thomas Green. A copy of this book can be found in the Archives.

A large portion of student life at SJW involves student residence as many of the students live far outside the day travel area. An alumnus, Gerard Kennedy, is the residence coordinator for the School for the Deaf. He detailed the alert systems that are in place in each of the residence quarters. There are lights that alert the students of the various events, such as red for emergency and the blue light signifies the phone is ringing. The yellow indicates that someone is at the residence door, and green means that someone is at the outside door. In the latter case, for safety reasons, a monitor is viewed before the door is opened.

The residence quarters are also well balanced. Leaded glass, oversized windows allow for ample light and expose the restored parquet flooring in many of the living areas. The furniture is modern and comfortable and full entertainment systems are available including television, computers and even wii.

Most locals in the area know that Sir James Whitney has an impressive swimming pool. It was on my first tour that I learned about the students and synchronized swimming. Music is used during swimming, and it creates vibrations in the water. The water carries the sound wave, which the swimmer can feel; therefore movements can then be executed to the feel of the vibrations of the music in the water. Jim also mentions that during the school dances in the auditorium, the base on the music is turned up quite high for the benefit of the dancers. This same auditorium, complete with full stage, is where SJW holds its annual ‘Unique Christmas Pageant’. The students put on a pageant like no other, and it is fully translated for the hearing in the audience. This event is open to the general public, and an excellent opportunity to experience this forward thinking community.

Published in the County and Quinte Living magazine, Winter 2011 issue. Now available.


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