IM this article to a friend!

April 18, 2004

Speaking the same language

From: Norwich Bulletin - Norwich,CT,USA - Apr 18, 2004

Studying American Sign Language since the second grade, students in Montville communicate without barriers.

By JAMES WALKER Norwich Bulletin

MONTVILLE -- The long fingers of Ross Dvorak were precise as they moved between the center of his chest, mouth and wrist before closing into a fist and by making circular movements, simulated a pedal in motion.

He uttered no words in the still quiet of Paula Bell's eighth grade class at Tyl Middle School as he read the sentence "There is my doctor's bicycle" in front of his classmates last Thursday morning. In the silence of the American Sign Language room, the vision of the American Flag overlooks 22 students that have their eyes glued to Bell's hands.

The only noise comes when students turn pages in their notebooks or twist to face one another and use sign language to speak. For one hour, the only form of communication is sign language and Bell knows that 44 hands can do a lot of talking.

Particularly, from this group.

Some are her trailblazers, a group that has been with her since she started the class a little more than six years ago. In this community of slightly more than 17,000, Bell has managed to take a career she fell "madly and passionately in love with" and help erase a stereotype and mobilize educators and parents and, most importantly, students.

"I can't explain it. I just love this work," she said. The first deaf teacher in America was Laurent Clerc. He arrived in 1817 from Paris, with Thomas Gallaudet to set up the first school for the deaf in Hartford, according to the Web site for the National Association for the Deaf.

For Bell, this is her last year at Tyl before she moves on to Montville High School to be with Dvorak and Stan Potchoiba and Lindsay Stergio. The three students are either deaf or hard of hearing. The law requires that Bell's services be made available to them.

"They're the pioneers of this program," Bell said. "Lindsay was my first student."

Bell began teaching Stergio sign language when she was in the second grade. It was a very small, lonely world for the young girl then. With the exception of Bell, very few people in the school knew how to communicate with her. The school principal, Rosemarie Payne, suggested that the class be opened to other students. Payne recognized sign language as a skill that would open doors for the students in the future and as a way to embrace Stergio. Soon, Dvorak and Potchoiba followed.

"We saw the picture more globally, with an opportunity for Lindsay to communicate with her peers and adults," Payne said. "If a student is part of our community, we need to reach out to them."

Six years later, the program is highly successful, with students and teachers and even parents learning to sign.

"We're not as good as the children, we concede that, but we do our best," Payne said. And it has never stopped. Stergio is gone, but a school monitor, who is also deaf, has taught the elementary school kids the basic signs.

"They know the sign language for ice cream," Payne laughed.

The students at Tyl take the class as a foreign language. Mary Perkins, Berkeley Cecchini-Bond, Casey Chidester and Rickie Geiler, who is known as a very fast signer, also have been with Bell for at least four years. They are all typical teens, active in sports and in community activities.

"I think it's fun because when we're out, nobody knows what we're talking about," Perkins said. "I'm teaching my mom how to sign. She thinks it's beautiful and majestic."

The students said learning to sign has helped them to extend their hand in everything from volunteer efforts at the Center for the Blind at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post in Montville to concerts at the Rhode Island School for the Deaf in Providence to signing a letter on behalf of the cancer foundation in front of an audience at Montville High School.

But the eighth-grade students are concerned as they prepare to move on to the high school. The program is not offered there as a foreign language.

"We're trying to get the sign language program over to the high school," Chidester said. "Everyone in the class has written a letter to the Board of Education. Sign language helps us communicate with deaf people."

Meanwhile, Perkins said they do what they can to keep sign language alive by teaching others basic skills such as "colors and the alphabet. We're hoping that we can continue the program for years to come."

In the cafeteria at Tyl, books have been replaced with lunch trays and the conversation is about what's happening after school during a lunch break that is alive with the sounds of teen spirit.

Stergio, 14, is sitting at a table tossing a black crumpled bag of white cheese popcorn up and down in the air. She is surrounded by friends and talking to Brooke Forbes, who said they were discussing an upcoming test on world culture. Forbes, who isn't deaf, learned ASL in Bell's class.

They don't always use sign language because sophisticated technology allows them to use hearing devices but Bell said many times what they're hearing is distorted. Dvorak is hard of hearing from ear infections from early childhood. He has 50 percent hearing in his right ear and 35 percent in his left.

There are more than 50 deaf or hard of hearing students in schools in the southeastern region, according to a list compiled by John Purdy of the Bureau of Special Education and Pupil Services with the State Department of Education.

But Purdy points out those numbers may not be representative of the true population of deaf students.

"You can have kids that are hearing impaired that are not on the list," he said.

Wherever the deaf children are, they have friends at Tyl where the students are actively passing on Bell's teachings.

In Monica Sakowsky's seventh- grade ASL class, Shelby Prokop, Lauramarie Rahusen, Cassie Rice, Michael Gitten and Sagar Parekh, along with 16 other students, are all standing. Their fingers move in perfect coordination as they sign the song "Don't Laugh at Me."

On the wall behind them, the words "Dare to Excel" shimmer in red letters against black paper.

Peter DeLisa, principal of Tyl, said the sign language program has brought together a diverse group of kids.

"I love its uniqueness," he said. "It makes us stand alone. It has definitely left its mark on the school."

DeLisa said it was unfortunate that as school budgets become tighter and tighter, it is programs such as these that fall. The class, which was being offered to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, is in jeopardy.

After this year, it will no longer be offered to sixth- and seventh- graders. However, in his school, where the class has cleared a path to bring a generation closer, he plans to continue offering it to some students.

"Unless the sky falls in, it will be available to eighth-grade students next year," he said. "We are scheduling with that in mind."

On the Web:

For more information on ASL, follow links from the online version of this story at

Copyright © 2004 Norwich Bulletin. All rights reserved.