New ENC School for the Deaf director shares vision

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Michele Handley won’t be moving to Wilson for another month, but that didn’t stop the newly appointed director for the Eastern North Carolina School for the Deaf from meeting with staff Friday.

“We are so lucky to have Dr. Handley joining us in North Carolina,” said Maria Pitre-Martin, the deputy state superintendent for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. “It was critical to look for a new director in a timely manner and bring the best possible candidate to you and I believe we’ve done that. I look forward to having her with us in a month.”

With the help of videoconferencing, Handley was able to introduce herself and answer questions. She currently works at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, where she has been since 2007. In addition to administrative roles, Handley has been a parent adviser, teacher and interpreter at schools in Colorado and Georgia since getting a bachelor’s degree in 1996.

She said she had always heard positive things about ENCSD, but when the position became available after Carter Bearden resigned in mid-2017, she said she was convinced to apply when she learned the school and the community rallied to keep the school open when efforts were made to shutter it.

“Immediately when I got on your campus, I felt like I fit. When I was in the interview with the big panel of people, I felt like we were friends,” she said. “During the second interview, I came again and I was worried because I was so comfortable with all the people, but it really did feel like I was home.”

The 44-year-old mom of one will move to Wilson at the beginning of March and start work at the school on March 13.

“When I get there, I‘ll send out a survey to all staff, parents and students. I want to know what are your concerns, what are your goals and what are some solutions,” she said. “There are some ideas I have, but I want to hear your perspectives first.”

Gary Farmer, who worked for ENCSD for 32 years and now serves on the school advisory board, asked Handley about whether she supported athletic programs at the school.

“Sports teach so many skills for life like teamwork, self-satisfaction, discipline and taking care of business. Those are all life skills,” she said. “I support that, but you have to have the balance, so you have got to have the good academics first.”

ENCSD is slated to add a preschool program for deaf and hard of hearing children in the fall and Dianne Wright picked Handley’s brain about the new curriculum.

“We need to make sure our program is at its best. We need to make sure every class for every student is meeting their needs,” Handley said. “Think about it like a product you’re selling. If it is cheap, no one is going to buy it, so we have to make sure our product is top-notch, then look at how to expand and address any gaps we have. If 3- to 5-year-olds are falling through the gap, we can address that. If our K-12 program is not strong enough, we’ll focus on that first.”

While Handley is fluent in sign language, it wasn’t until her senior year in college that she changed her career path and learned from a co-worker at Belk.

“She taught me sign language from ‘The Joy of Signing’ and I was totally fascinated by it. I wanted more experience and practice, so I signed up to be a substitute teacher in the school system, but at that time, there were no subs for interpreting,” she said. “With my beginning sign language, I went into a preschool class and they were better at signing than I was.”

After that experience, she signed up for the interpreter training program and lived with deaf college students in the dorm for the summer. She has since gotten her master’s degree and her doctorate in education. She said she enjoys crafting and art in her free time as well as spending time with her 7-year-old son.

“I really spend most of my time with my son and working,” she said. “I am passionate about my work. I enjoy it and sometimes when I go home, I’ll read articles about work.”

Handley said she feels the school’s career technology education curriculum is essential.

“Technology is our world now and many of our students will be in the technology career field,” she said. “It is good that we have a program to address those needs. If a student wants to go to work or college, we need to do our best to prepare them for whatever path meets their needs.”

More than 30 applications were received for the opportunity to lead the school’s 70 students and more than 100 staff members.

“I feel honored to be selected as the new director for the ENCSD,” Handley said. “I am looking forward to being a part of the ENCSD and Wilson communities, and enhancing the education and services for students who are deaf or hard of hearing in North Carolina.”