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Hamilton teen makes history at St. Rita School for the Deaf

Tiffany Baker is the only member of the school’s Class of 2018; something that hasn’t happened since 1920.

After having her baby’s hearing tested at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Carma Baker was informed her daughter had a hearing disability, then after additional tests, she learned it was a neurological hearing disorder.

Questions raced through this mother’s mind, as expected.

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“So she can’t hear me?” Baker asked, not expecting an answer. “She can’t hear me talk to her? She can’t hear music? She can’t hear nothing? So it would be pointless for me to read a book to her?”

That was 19 years ago, and earlier this week, Tiffany Baker, of Hamilton, proved the doubters wrong when she graduated from St. Rita School for the Deaf in Cincinnati where she attended since she was in kindergarten. After receiving her diploma, Tiffany walked the halls of the school along Interstate 75 as her classmates and teachers handed her bouquets of green flowers.

Tiffany Baker, of Hamilton, celebrates her graduation day May 29 at St. Rita School for the Deaf in Cincinnati. Baker, 19, was the only graduate this year. The last time St. Rita had that few graduates was its first graduating class in 1920. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF (Staff Writer)

There also was a reception and a 26-minute video that highlighted Tiffany’s growth from a quiet and shy elementary school student to a middle school student who walked the halls with her head down to a 2018 graduate not afraid to express her feelings through sign language. Throughout the video, the staff at St. Rita signed their messages while a narrator interrupted their comments.

Several of the messages ended with teachers frantically waving their raised hands, sign language for applause.

There certainly is a lot to celebrate about Tiffany’s accomplishments. This was the first time since 1920 — the first graduating class in St. Rita history — when one student graduated. Add Tiffany Baker’s name to William Hornung’s as the only St. Rita students to finish first — and last — in their class.

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She attended preschool, then after her mother learned about St. Rita’s curriculum from a friend, Tiffany transferred. Her mother wanted Tiffany to attend a school where there were “more students like her,” people she’d feel more comfortable around. She has no regrets.

“I can’t imagine seeing her anyplace else,” her mother said.

She certainly excelled at St. Rita’s where she played volleyball and basketball for the Lions and was named Homecoming Queen. After the graduation ceremony, Baker watched as her daughter mingled with her teachers and classmates. Like many parents this time of year, the mother wonders where the time went. Just yesterday, she was changing her daughter’s diaper.

Now her daughter is proudly carrying a diploma.

Tiffany Baker will return to St. Rita’s next fall to begin her journey in the Career Plus Program, a two-year program designed for students who are continuing their special education services in order to become “career ready.” (NICK GRAHAM/STAFF)

“Sometimes it seems like just yesterday,” her mother said. “You know, I was putting her on the bus for the first time. And other times, it’s like, ‘Wow, we made it. We’re here.’ I’m proud of her.”

Her mother paused, then added: “Today I see someone who has grown into a wonderful woman. It amazes me when I look at her.”

Besides her mother, her father, Michael, brother David and grandparents attended the graduation. When the ceremony ended, Tiffany walked outside and tossed her cap high in the air.

St. Rita Principal Natalie Marsh compared her students to family and said she’s excited and sad after every graduation, regardless of the class size.

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“She grew up here since kindergarten,” Marsh said of her lone graduate. “We kind of helped raise her. So it’s always bittersweet. So wonderful in her accomplishments, but at the same time, you see somebody every day for so many years, and now they’re gone.”

Tiffany Baker, of Hamilton, walks down the hall lined with students and faculty as she celebrates her graduation day May 29 at St. Rita School for the Deaf in Cincinnati.  (CONTRIBUTED/ANNA NWA)

But Tiffany will return to St. Rita’s next fall to begin her journey in the Career Plus Program, a two-year program designed for students who are continuing their special education services in order to become “career ready.”

The program focuses on job skill development, budgeting skills, self-advocacy, and understanding legal rights for people with disabilities.

At the end of the second year, the goal is for Tiffany, who will be 21, to have secured competitive employment and start living out her life with a career she loves.

While sitting next to her principal, Tiffany signed: “I feel lucky and good. It felt great.”

Tiffany will leave an indelible mark on the school, and for years to come because of her senior picture that will hang in the hallway. Tiffany and her principal posed for a formal graduation portrait weeks ago on the steps outside the school. Marsh made sure she looked like a principal: Hands down at her side, shoulders back, a slight smile.

Not Tiffany. She leaned back with a smug look on her face. Very much Class of 2018.

“That’s our graduation picture,” Marsh said with a smile. “She may not be able to express it, but we’re very proud of her too.”

Action, sometimes, speaks louder than words.

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