Marlton School is mourning the loss of one of its most revered teachers, Carol Billone, who in 1968 became the first Deaf teacher to be hired by L.A. Unified. Billone died of cancer on Oct. 31. She was 74.
Having moved to Los Angeles with her family at age 3 and then losing her hearing to an illness two years later, Billone knew what learning was like as a Deaf student in public schools. She attended now-closed Mary E. Bennett School for the Deaf for elementary school, then matriculated to Le Conte Middle School and Hollywood High because there were no secondary programs for Deaf or hard-of-hearing students. She graduated from Gallaudet College for the Deaf (now Callaudet University) in 1966.
Not long after, she became a teacher in physical sciences and drama at Marlton School for the Deaf, which had just opened its doors in 1967. In a career that spanned nearly four decades, she became a pivotal figure in Deaf education, spearheading reforms that helped change the education of Deaf and hard-of-hearing students.
“Carol Billone was a pioneer in education for students who are Deaf or hard of hearing,” said Marlton Principal Lisa DeRoss. “She was a visionary and a beacon. She drew in Deaf students and their families and Deaf faculty members, and really built Marlton into the school that it is today.”
One of the first students to attend Marlton, Wanda La Coure, fondly remembers having Billone as a teacher.
“She was an incredibly important figure for this school,” La Coure recalled. “I remember quickly becoming attached to her, because she was one of the only teachers who could communicate by signing. We spent a lot of time having conversations, and some of the other students would watch us and then started learning how to sign. She brought sign language into the school.”
La Coure kept in close touch with Billone over the years and later joined the school as a special education assistant.
“She produced plays with the drama students that were performed entirely in sign language,” she said. “It had never been done before. It caught the attention of a lot of important people at the District, and they came to see it. They were so amazed that it convinced them to approve what would become a permanent program in American Sign Language (ASL) at the school.”
Over time, Billone spoke openly about the need for a faculty that resembled the school’s students, bringing in more Deaf employees from a variety of races, ethnicities and cultural backgrounds.
“She understood what it was like to feel oppressed,” said Stephanie Johnson, a Marlton teacher who also serves as the school’s English language coordinator. “She paved the way for teachers like me so we didn’t have to struggle the way she did. It’s one of the many ways she made a difference.”
Yolanda Roberson-Adeoye, a Deaf teacher of secondary reading and history, said Billone was the main reason she came to work for Marlton.
“She really believed it was important for students to be taught by those who were like them in all respects,” she said, “for students to see that Deaf people come in all colors and backgrounds … that they are like everyone else.”
Billone lobbied to extend Marlton through 12th grade, which occurred in 1971. Five years later, she was the first Deaf woman to be named as a California Teacher of the Year. She was recognized by Cal State Northridge as Deaf Teacher of the Year for 1981.
In 1985, Billone was director of the 15th annual World Games for the Deaf, recruiting dozens of Deaf volunteers to support the thousands of athletes who came from around the world to compete in Los Angeles. In 1988, she was appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley to serve on the city’s Human Relations Commission.
A few years later, at her urging the California Interscholastic Federation allowed Deaf and hard-of-hearing students to compete with hearing students in sporting events like basketball, volleyball, and track and field.
“Before the integration happened, Marlton students could only compete with teams from other special education schools,” La Coure said. “Now, our students could compete with hearing students and show they were perfectly capable athletes. It helped them feel less isolated and part of a larger world. It was incredibly important.”
Richard Hall, who teaches secondary ASL, reading and film at Marlton, said that Billione’s efforts to build bridges to the community continued throughout her lifetime.
“She set up the sibling program,” he said. “It allowed hearing students in elementary grades to attend Marlton with their brothers or sisters who were Deaf or hard of hearing.”
The program — now in place for over 20 years — allows siblings to ride the buses together, attend class together, learn ASL and better support their family members.
“Now, the deaf students don’t have to be alone,” Hall said. “They can attend school with their brothers and sisters as most students do. The program has really helped build strong relationships between the school and families and promotes a sense of inclusivity.”
When Billone retired from teaching in 2006, the Marlton community named the school auditorium in her honor.
She continued to remain active at the campus for a decade after her retirement, volunteering regularly, attending every graduation and even granting a scholarship in her parents’ names to students each year. She funded the scholarship personally.
On October 31, 2017, Billone lost her battle with pancreatic cancer, survived by her partner of 34 years, Dr. Judith Pachciarz (who legally became her wife in 2008) along with nieces and nephews. She left behind a legacy that continues to strike hope and inspiration in the students, families and educators at Martlon School and beyond.
“She never stopped dreaming of ways to help Deaf students to feel part of a community,” said Kimberley Miller, who worked closely with Billone as a Marlton assistant principal. “Her playfulness and sense of humor were a reminder of her love for humanity as well as a way to promote understanding of the needs and rights of Deaf children.”
Irma Sanchez is the mother of three children who are Deaf and a former parent of Marlton School. She characterized Billone who was beloved by everyone who met her.
“She was always part of our family,” Sanchez said. “She made such a difference to my three boys and was a major reason why they have grown up to lead such rich and full lives.”
In 2012, Sanchez and her husband founded Deaf Latinos y Familia Organization, a non-profit supporting families of Deaf and hard-of-hearing children. It offers free sign-language classes and helps connect Deaf youngsters to their familial, historical and cultural roots.
“She inspired us to become advocates for children and families everywhere,” she said. “Even though she is no longer with us, her spirit continues to shape our children’s lives.”
The Marlton School community is planning a special memorial for Billone at the campus, scheduled for January 13, 2018.