Amy Williams spoke slowly and carefully as she taught a math lesson on rounding numbers.
But her fingers flew as she supplemented her words and written examples with American Sign Language for two hearing-impaired students in her group.
Nearby, Kristen Williams taught another small group as interpreter Dana Vander Meulen signed instructions for two hearing-impaired students.
The Sovereign Avenue School in Atlantic City has taught hearing-impaired students for about four years. This year, because of increased enrollment, a fourth- and a sixth-grade classroom have become inclusion classes for the hearing impaired. One hearing-impaired first-grader, six fourth-graders and four sixth-graders are included in regular classes of about 20 students. A certified teacher of the deaf is assigned to each classroom, along with sign-language interpreters.
The international flavor of the 910-student school, where more than 40 languages are spoken, is an additional challenge to the program. Many of the hearing-impaired children are not native English speakers, and the sign language they learned in their native countries is not the same as the American Sign Language they are learning now.
“We teach each other,” said Vander Meulen, who has worked as an interpreter for 10 years, the past two in Atlantic City.
Principal Medina Peyton said the program includes two tuition students from Ventnor, two from Pleasantville and one from Winslow Township, Camden County. The Atlantic City students include three siblings from Bangladesh whose parents are also deaf.
Peyton said some students use signs their families made up, and while they are learning American Sign Language in school they will still use Spanish Sign Language at home. The school has staff who speak the languages of their students’ families, and they can be called on to work with sign language interpreters to keep parents informed. The school also has a special phone system so deaf parents can contact them.
Statewide, only about 1,500 of the state’s 1.35 million students are classified with just a hearing impairment, according to 2011-12 data from the state Department of Education. Additional students may have multiple disabilities that include a hearing impairment.
The Cape May County Special Services district has a teacher of the deaf on staff, and the Atlantic County Special Services district teaches sign language as its world language. Superintendents of both schools said students with just hearing impairments typically remain in their hometown school with an interpreter.
But being the only deaf student in a class or even a school can be isolating, especially in the upper grades, said Michelle Cline, president of the New Jersey Association of the Deaf. She said depending on the student’s hearing ability, schools must find a balance of services that will help them learn and adapt, be they visual, through technology or an interpreter. The group also advocates for teaching American Sign Language, or ASL, to all hearing-impaired students because it will help them understand more and broaden their world to include deaf culture.
Cline said many students are not taught ASL because it is assumed they will hear well enough with hearing aids or cochlear implants. But that is not always the case.
“If they learn ASL, they become bilingual,” she said.
The group also encourages schools to offer ASL to hearing students as a second language. Locally, Ocean City offers ASL at the high school.
Sovereign Avenue School’s program teaches ASL, and the school is beginning an after-school sign language club open to all students. Hearing students in the inclusion classes are already picking up some signs, or just using universal gestures to communicate.
During a recent class, Franklin Hernandez, 9, worked on a math multiplication computer game with Noel Galvez, 10, and it was difficult to tell which student was hearing impaired. They took turns, pointed and helped each other without talking, occasionally laughing or making faces.
“It is a little hard because I can’t talk to them,” Franklin said of being in a class with hearing-impaired students.
Some of the students can hear a little. Noel and classmate Puja Parmar signed to Vander Meulen that they can hear some sounds when the volume on their computer headsets is turned all the way up.
Teacher Kristen Williams said she has learned to speak more clearly so students can read her lips and to pause longer so the interpreters can catch up.
“It’s really not a lot different from a regular classroom,” she said. “It’s all about figuring out what each student needs. Some are at grade level, but not all of them. There is always a lot going on.”
The students are put into groups based on academic level, with the hearing-impaired students divided among the groups.
Teacher of the deaf Amy Williams said it’s exciting to teach an inclusion class.
“It helps to be an animated person,” she said. “I do talk with my hands, but kids like that. Being visual helps all of them, and I want the hearing-impaired students to be able to learn just like the regular kids.”
Early intervention is also crucial, Cline said. The National Association of the Deaf offers resources, as does the New Jersey School for the Deaf in Trenton and the Division for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired within the state Department of Human Services. Children can also get preschool services through their public school system.
Upper Township school social worker Jill Clark said the district started with one little girl, who then had a sibling, then another student transferred from Somers Point. The middle school also has two students with some hearing loss. The district now has both an interpreter at the preschool and a teacher of the deaf for the district.
“If you just have an interpreter, and she gets sick, the child has no one because it’s hard to find a replacement,” she said. “We are lucky in that we have a special education teacher who can sign. But we’ve learned so much from having a certified teacher of the deaf, and the parents are great.”
Cline said a good interpreter does not just repeat what the teacher says but explains concepts as needed. Peyton said interpreters get planning time so they can prepare for the lessons. The interpreters take turns so students don’t get bored looking at the same person all the time.
“Some can read lips and sign, and they are at different levels,” Vander Meulen said. “I have to make sure they are paying attention to me. They are young. It’s so easy for them to just tune me out. But all the kids here really want to learn.”
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