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September 6, 2003

Sign of the times at PHS

From: Press Herald, ME - Sept 6, 2003

By TESS NACELEWICZ, Portland Press Herald Writer

A J. Less was one of only about 10 high school students, all deaf or hard of hearing, when he attended Gov. Baxter School for the Deaf last year.

But the state closed the tiny high school in June after deciding it was too small to provide the education students need to meet state standards. Now Less and eight of his schoolmates are attending Portland High School, a very different learning experience for them. They're in classes with hearing students - more than 1,200 of them.

"It's like rush hour," said Less, describing the halls when the bell rings at the end of each period. Speaking Friday on the first full day of classes, the 17-year-old junior joked that the school should put yellow lines on the stairs to help regulate the chaotic traffic.

Still, Less said he was getting used to and liking his new school. "Really, I feel very positive about the experience," he said.

Portland High - Maine's most culturally and racially diverse public high school - also feels positive about having the Baxter students, said Principal Michael Johnson. Thirty-one languages were already being spoken in the school's hallways, so the addition of American Sign Language just makes 32, he said.

"The kids at Portland High are unique. They're very, very welcoming with each other. It's refreshing to see," he said. The same goes for the faculty, Johnson said.

Johnson and Mary Martone, principal for Baxter students from kindergarten through grade 12, said they expect both the deaf and hearing students to benefit from the new arrangement. "We're broadening the horizons of the hearing students, not only the students from Baxter," Martone said.

Hearing students now have a chance to study another foreign language - American Sign Language - because Baxter has provided an ASL teacher to Portland High. More than 100 hearing students have signed up for the class.

One of them, Lindsey True, 17, a senior, considers the class an opportunity she didn't want to miss. "Learning sign language will open a lot of doors for us in the future," she said. For example, she may become a nurse and use ASL to communicate with patients.

John Nappi, 16, a junior, said he's taking the class to be able to communicate better with an uncle who is deaf and with the new deaf students in school. "In the past, I haven't been able to talk that much to deaf people," he said. "Now I'll be able to a lot more."

Baxter students are expected to gain too - by having more courses to choose from.

Gov. Baxter School for the Deaf, a state-run school in Falmouth, serves about 70 students on its Mackworth Island campus. It also provides outreach services to more than 500 deaf and hearing-impaired children in regular schools around the state.

But while the state rated Baxter's elementary and middle school programs as "very strong" - and is paying $2.3 million to build a new middle school on campus - it said Baxter's tiny high school was too small to offer the kind of education demanded by Maine's new Learning Results education standards.

Martone explained that Baxter has fine teachers, but they generally are certified as teachers of the deaf and don't have specialized certifications in such subjects as math or science that the state requires of high school teachers. And with so few students, it didn't make sense for Baxter to hire a specialist to teach, say, an advanced earth science course to the one Baxter student now taking that course at Portland High.

So Baxter and Portland worked out an agreement where the Baxter students would attend classes at the high school, while retaining close ties to Baxter, considered the hub of the deaf community. They can live in the Baxter dorms, participate in sports and other activities at the school, and receive their diplomas from Baxter.

Baxter students come from all over the state - Less is from Farmingdale, for instance - but the state, not Portland, is picking up the cost of their schooling. Martone said it could cost as much as $400,000 this year with interpreters and other services the students need at Portland High.

Being "mainstreamed" into a regular school presents challenges for the deaf students. On Friday, four of the Baxter students in a beginning earth-science class taught by Rocco Frenzilli all had to sit close to the front so they could easily see their interpreter, perched on a stool near the teacher. Close by the students sat another interpreter and Sandy Morrison, a teacher for the deaf from Baxter.

The interpreters' job was to translate what Frenzilli and other hearing students said into ASL for the deaf students. They also translated the deaf students' questions and answers from ASL into spoken English for the teacher and other students. Having an interpreter in class is new for some Baxter students because teachers at Baxter typically are fluent in ASL.

It's also new for the hearing students, and Frenzilli had to remind them to focus on him, not the interpreters. Baxter officials said hearing students usually don't notice the interpreters after a couple of weeks.

Morrison also signed to the deaf students, assisting them in their understanding of the subject matter. His help was necessary at times because, after all, English is the deaf students' second language. For most, ASL, a visual-gestural language, is their native method of communication.

The first day of class can be intimidating for any student. Many of the hearing students held back from responding to Frenzilli's questions, such as what the definition of science is. But Baxter freshmen Megan Sargent of Portland and Clayton Marr III of Westbrook eagerly waved their hands in the air throughout the class, offering answers or asking for explanations.

"It shows their motivation and enthusiasm for the experience," Morrison said after class.

Copyright © 2003 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.