Knoxville educator helps deaf of Puerto Rico

Tom KingUncategorized

It’s back to Carolina, Puerto Rico, for Knoxvillian Dr. Diane Robinette as she continues her work to begin classes for students at the faith-based Emmanuel Academy for the Deaf.

She returns to San Juan on Tuesday, March 20, and her first order of business as the school’s director is to hire teachers so classes can begin in April. As she prepares to leave, she’s also raising funds to support this new school. “We have enough money to begin these first classes but we need about $200,000 a year for a full school year,” she said. “I think the money will come in, but I don’t know where it’s coming from. I have great faith that it will.”

The school currently is licensed to teach grades K-8 and the plan is to eventually have K-12 classes.

Her plan is to remain in Puerto Rico through June, return home and then go back in August to begin what she hopes is a full year of classes. She plans to be there for the full school year. But she does not plan to make Puerto Rico her home. “I want the Puerto Ricans to eventually own this school and run it in educating their children,” she says.

She talks about the great need there. There are almost 800 deaf students (K-12) in public schools who are not, in her opinion, being served well. She explains that there are between 300 to 400 students within an easy drive of the school. Students will pay tuition, wear uniforms and pay for their textbooks. There is assistance available for lower-income students and families.

This project has been her dream since 2009 when she took a sabbatical from teaching classes at Tusculum College to assist Puerto Rico Deaf Ministries in establishing a school for the deaf. Her first trip to Puerto Rico was in 1979 when she visited her roommate from Gallaudet University. That roommate – Shirley Dubber – is still in Puerto Rico (since 1978) and is the principal of the Calvary Baptist Christian School. Physically, Emmanuel Academy will have its classes in the Calvary Baptist building, but the two schools are legally and financially independent.

Emmanuel Academy is supported by First Baptist Church of Knoxville, which has a long history with the deaf community, the Christian Association for Deaf Education in Knoxville and donations from advocates for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Robinette is uniquely qualified for this project and her education and career have led her to this new school … her calling.

Her interest in deaf education began when she was in high school in Nashville. During that time, she volunteered at the Bill Wilkerson Speech and Hearing Center at Vanderbilt University and saw the movie about Helen Keller – “The Miracle Worker.” Her primary interest growing up was music and she followed her father’s family connections to Carson-Newman University, well known for its music program. She graduated with degrees in elementary education and music education.

She continued her education at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the world’s premier university for the deaf, earning a master’s in education of the deaf and hearing impaired. She later earned her doctorate from the University of Tennessee in curriculum and instruction with American Sign Language and teaching English for speakers of other languages as her collateral areas.

She worked one semester in a girls’ dormitory at the Tennessee School for the Deaf in 1974 and that’s when she learned conversational American Sign Language. Beginning in 1976, she spent 10 years teaching deaf and hearing students in grades 7-12 at The King’s Academy in Seymour when it was still Harrison-Chilhowee Baptist Academy. That experience gave her the opportunity to teach students from 12 countries on five continents and it was there that she met a deaf student from Puerto Rico. They remain friends today.

Her daughter, Karen, was 4 when Dr. Robinette adopted her in Guatemala in 1986. Today, Karen is the marketing director of the Boys and Girls Club of the Smoky Mountains in Sevier County. Karen, like her mother of course, is proficient in American Sign Language and has visited Puerto Rico with her mother.

Robinette also is a talented organist and has played for a number of churches in Knoxville.

“When I was studying at Gallaudet I felt a calling for the Christian education of the deaf and my teaching at King’s Academy and what I’m doing in Puerto Rico now both fit my calling,” she said. “Jesus is our greatest teacher and we want to model all of our instruction after His teaching.”

If you would like to learn more about the school and make a donation to support Robinette and the school, visit their website at and you can click on the “Donate” button. Also, if you would like more information you can call her at 865-300-0230 or email

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