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February 18, 2003

School for Deaf builds community

From: The Argus, CA - 18 Feb 2003

By Catlin Driscoll

HIGH SCHOOL students trade gossip or the latest news as they walk to class.

Elementary school students ask questions about stories their teachers tell them.

Preschoolers chatter joyously as they tumble onto piles of pillows.

And all of them do it with their hands.

Students at California School for the Deaf interact with teachers, staff and their peers just like students at any other school. But instead of learning only the state-required subjects, they also learn American Sign Language.

The school -- founded in San Francisco in 1860 -- houses about 500 students from throughout the state, up to age 21. The focus is on family communication and achieving success, according to outreach specialist Bridgetta Bourne-Firl.

The school has been located in Fremont -- on a sprawling campus bordered by Walnut Avenue, Mission Boulevard, Stevenson Boulevard and Galludet Drive -- for the past 20 years.

It's an ideal place for the school, Browne-Firl said, because of the city's large deaf community and its attitude toward the deaf.

"This town is very unique," Bourne-Firl said through an interpreter. Rather than feeling sorry for the deaf, she said, Fremont residents often apologize for letting their sign-

ing skills decline.

"People in the deaf community here are happy with the way they are," she said.

Part of the school's mission is to provide models for its students, to help them feel confident in their abilities to contribute to the community. Half the staff at the school is deaf and all staffers use sign language.

To ensure the school environment is inclusive to students, all staffers -- hearing and deaf -- are required to sign at all times. It gives students the opportunity to listen in on conversations, just as hearing students would if they passed by two teachers, administrators or other staff speaking, Bourne-Firl said.

Signs are posted through-

out the school's halls reminding people to sign. For parents and other visitors who cannot sign or are just learning, an interpreter is contracted to speak for the signing party and sign for the speaking party.

The school not only offers comprehensive education from early childhood through high school -- using California State Frameworks required in all public schools -- it also helps educate hearing parents of deaf children.

Most students older than 5 whose parents live outside the Tri-City area live at the school during the week, in "cottages" with other students.

Younger children commute from home, or staffers from the school visit for in-home instruction. All students go home on the weekends to spend time with their families, Bourne-Firl said.

Like many other public schools, the School for the Deaf has suffered from state budget cuts, but it still boasts several model programs, Bourne-Firl said.

Its career and technical education program has garnered praise from the State Department of Education, she said. The program prepares students for college or job placement by helping them learn skills such as interviewing and resume writing.

About half of graduating seniors go on to attend college.

More information about California School for the Deaf is available through Bridgetta Bourne-Firl: (510) 794-3876 or .

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