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May 11, 2004

Hart's Hill kids embrace 'signing'

From: Utica Observer Dispatch, NY - May 11, 2004

Program creates a bridge to school's hearing impaired


WHITESBORO -- Once a week, 18 third-grade students in a Hart's Hill Elementary School class in Whitesboro give up their recess time to learn sign language, usually in the form of song.

They don't get extra credit, less homework or chocolate milk at lunch for taking this class. The only incentive these third-graders have is the chance to communicate better with their classmates.

There are three hearing impaired students at Hart's Hill School and 11 hearing impaired students in the Whitesboro Central School District, said Kay Custodero, one of two teachers of the deaf and hearing impaired in the district.

Miranda Petronella, 9, is the pro of this third-grade group. She's hearing impaired and "sings" "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "The Alphabet Song" with ease.

"I feel my friends are really kind to me. They want to learn sign language," Petronella said using sign language. "It makes me happy ... and a bit surprised that they like to sign."

Nationwide, there are about 1 million children with some degree of hearing loss, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. About 83 of every 1,000 have "educationally significant hearing loss," the association estimates.

For 20 years, hearing impaired students at Hart's Hill have been getting assistance from the five educational interpreters and two teachers of the deaf and hearing impaired. Not all hearing impaired students are good fits for the program, Custodero said. Some are referred to the New York state School for the Deaf in Rome.

"Anything the teacher says, I say," said educational interpreter Carrie Arnold, of her work with Petronella. "Any comments, anything, I sign. Just so she's aware of what is going on."

At Hart's Hill, hearing impaired students also have assistance from note takers -- hearing impaired students can't watch their interpreter and take notes at the same time -- and close captioning on videos. Speakers in some classrooms use an amplification system and wear a microphone so that any sound goes right to the students' ear.

"They provide all the services she needs," Miranda Petronella's mother Tina Petronella said. "She works with a teacher of the deaf. She has an interpreter through the whole day. She goes to speech therapy. And she's one of the top students in her class."

Some families with hearing impaired children have even relocated to Whitesboro from nearby school districts because of the program.

Fifth-grader Elena Ciccarelli's family moved from Utica to Whitesboro when their son, sixth-grader Salvatore Ciccarelli, was entering kindergarten. Both children are hearing impaired, their mother Barbara Wade said.

"They're very involved with other kids in the program," Wade said. "My attitude is always they have a hearing loss, but that shouldn't prevent them from whatever they want to do. The hearing was something that was just kind of secondary."

Tina Petronella agrees.

To her mother's surprise, Miranda, who was born hearing impaired, has integrated in school with few struggles.

"She doesn't see her hearing loss as a disability. Miranda doesn't just hang out with hearing impaired students. She has quite a few friends," Tina Petronella said.

Miranda Petronella's fellow classmates said they didn't think twice about giving up half an hour of recess time to learn to communicate with their friend.

"I'm doing it so I can talk to my friend who is deaf and I never knew how to talk to her until now," Brittany Scalzo said after class finished.

"Sometimes I don't know all of it, but I want to learn more," she said.

Other students surrender their time outside to more time in the classroom.

Some fourth and fifth-grade students have been learning to sign songs since they were in kindergarten, said Cindy Kennedy, educational interpreter for the deaf.

The program at the school gives hearing impaired students "the same opportunity that anyone has."

"My personal opinion is this is like the real world," Kennedy said after the class signed "Let There be Peace on Earth." "There are more hearing people than hearing impaired people in the world. And they need to learn to get along in a hearing world."

Contact Melissa Chadwick at

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