Changing to meet the needs of our children

Since 1873, Lutheran Special Education Ministries (LSEM), formerly known as Lutheran School for the Deaf, has been serving children with learning challenges. Our organization has a history of dedication and commitment to serving all of God’s children. As you explore our history timetable, you may notice that God’s plan for our ministry has been an inspiring road of faith and transition. Throughout these times of growth and change, our mission remains the same.

“The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.”
Proverbs 16:9 

Rev. George Speckhard
First Superintendent 

In 1873 the first seeds for Lutheran Special Education Ministries were planted when an orphanage was established in Detroit, Michigan. This founding marked the birth of a proud heritage: bringing the joy of Jesus to children in need.

Shortly after the Civil War, an epidemic took the lives of many Michigan parents, leaving their children orphans. Moved by Christian compassion, a group of dedicated Lutherans from several Detroit congregations met at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church (now Historic Trinity) on February 17, 1873 to discuss establishing an orphanage. Under the chairmanship of Trinity’s pastor, Rev. J.A. Huegli, the group formed “The German Evangelical Lutheran Orphan’s Assistance Society.”

One month later, the group elected Rev. Huegli as the first president of the first board of directors. Having formed an association of congregations, a mere two weeks later these Christians signed the first articles of incorporation for the society, on March 31, 1873. They began building and called Rev. G. Speckhardt of Sebewaing, Michigan as the first superintendent. Rev. G. Speckhardt did accept the call to serve as superintendent; however, he brought with him two deaf pupils, Margaretha Graaf and Margaretha Frisch, from Frankenmuth, Michigan. His reputation as a teacher of the deaf grew and soon more deaf children came under his care.

It became apparent to Synodical President Rev. Dr. C. F.W. Walther and other Synodical leaders that God had a plan. So at the 1874 Synodical Conference Convention in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the delegates unanimously resolved to suggest that the Detroit orphan ’s society serve the 17 deaf children exclusively and that the remaining 10 hearing orphans be moved to the LCMS orphanage in Addison, Illinois. The society agreed and ministry to the deaf began.

Then came the Great Depression and the Association could not raise the needed money to purchase the Plymouth property. They had no other choice but to remain in the current building. During the next few years, student enrollment declined to an all-time low of 23; in 1933, Rev. Gielow resigned as director with Principal John Klein taking his place.

However, by 1935, enrollment had increased to 48 students, once again causing very crowded conditions in the old school. At the Association’s annual meeting the delegation resolved to use the funds remaining from the 1928-29 campaign and build on the North Detroit property. In 1936 for $35,000, they built a new 35-pupil residence for girls, Dr. H.A. Hertwig Memorial Hall.

Two years later, as the student population increased to 74, again crowding the facilities, the board faced another decision; either they must stop recruiting more students or they must build. They decided to build.

To raise the needed money, the Association began a capital campaign. In the midst of the Great Depression – yet always under God’s grace – their campaign was successful. Donations came from around the Synod, from a school child’s few pennies to General and Mrs. William S. Knudsen’s gift of $60,000 for the Gloria Dei Clara Elizabeth Knudsen Chapel. Praise to God still resounds from this chapel today, as the students of Cornerstone Schools worship the Lord!

Soon Lutheran School for the Deaf celebrated a century of God’s grace and blessings. During this 1973 celebration, the centennial capital campaign raised $1 million to further support the school.

In 1975, a federal law was passed mandating that public schools provide education for all handicapped children. This law and medical advances resulted in a dramatic decrease in the number of children attending the school. The ministry’s focus shifted once again. Rather than close the doors, the board of trustees opened them wider. In 1976 a non-residential school was established on the same campus, where Lutheran Special Education Ministries provided a Christian education for children with various learning challenges.

As the national thrust of special education moved toward including children with unique learning needs in regular education settings, Lutheran Special Education Ministries began establishing satellite programs in Christian partnership schools. Holy Cross Lutheran School in Detroit became our first partnership school in 1979. Special education programs were designed to accommodate children so that they could attend their local Christian school. Eventually, all of the children at the original campus were transferred to other schools.

In 1984 another first: in-school programs were expanded outside Michigan, into Illinois. Within 10 short years remarkable changes had occurred in the ministry of Lutheran School for the Deaf. Under God’s grace and blessings, this organization expanded its mission beyond the learning challenges of deafness to include a new range of other barriers to learning, ones less visible but just as real.

While the ministry had changed, the name had not. So in May 1990, at the annual meeting of the Association of Congregations, delegates voted to change the corporate name from “Lutheran School for the Deaf” to “Lutheran Special Education Ministries.

In 1991, with the cooperation of the Lutheran Schools Association of New York, evaluation and consultation services were initiated in New York.

No longer a residential school, the campus was sold in 1997 to Cornerstone Schools, but LSEM continued to operate its national office out of the Nevada Avenue campus. Later that year Lutheran Special Education Ministries, in conjunction with the Lutheran Association for Elementary Education expanded its in-school programs yet again, into Indiana.

From 1999 to 2006 LSEM expanded its in-school programs to Minnesota, California, Arizona, Texas and Florida. Expansion eventually included schools in Maryland, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, and Idaho. In 1975 we served 50 students on a residential campus. Today we serve thousands of children across the country.

In 2012 LSEM moved its national office from the Nevada Avenue campus to Thirteen Mile Road in Farmington Hills, just northwest of Detroit. Eight years later LSEM moved to its current location on Geddes Road in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Each move resulting in greater efficiency so more of the ministry’s resources can be invested in children who have learning needs.

In 2023 we will celebrate 150 years of God’s grace and blessings. As we touch our past, we remember how God has sustained us to impact the lives of children with learning needs. As we embrace the future, we walk in faithful confidence that our God will continue to care for His children through Lutheran Special Education Ministries.

To God be the glory!