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May 26, 2004

Students break barriers at bee

From: Miami Herald, FL - May 26, 2004


Victor Owanikin felt the pressure.

With his teachers standing in front of him, classmates staring from behind and dozens of strangers just steps away, the Palm Springs Middle School seventh-grader crossed his fingers.

His fate was on a blue strip of paper pulled from a Ziploc bag in the third annual Deaf and Hard of Hearing Countywide Spelling Bee. The word on the paper was ''remember.''

Seconds after the word was revealed to judges, a sign-language interpreter began the hand and facial motions and Victor started writing, erasing and writing some more.

Victor was among 200 deaf or hard-of-hearing Miami-Dade Schools students who took part in Tuesday's competition -- an event many said they have been anticipating all year long.

''This spelling bee shows everyone that we are all capable of doing anything we want to just like hearing kids,'' said Ashley Thomas Jr., a junior at William H. Turner Technical Arts High, who lost his hearing at age 1 after suffering a seizure. ''Even if we struggle remembering the words, it doesn't matter because we still feel good about it.''

As the competition got under way at Palm Springs Middle in Hialeah, students who were waiting their turn to spell sat in the audience, communicating with their friends with their hands.


Some of the students have cochlear implants or wear hearing aids. Others have only partial hearing loss. But all of them understand sign language.

Despite not being able to hear, these students are no different than their classmates who are not hearing impaired. The boys playfully joked with one another while the girls discussed the latest fashions, said one of the interpreters, Mimi Penate.

But when their division -- elementary, middle school or high school -- was called, these students were all business. They made their way to the auditorium stage, stood in line and waited for their turn in the hot seat.

Unlike traditional spelling bees, in which students are told a word, an interpreter signs a word to the deaf student, who then has 30 seconds to write it on a dry-erase board.

After the word is written, the student holds it up for the judges. A thumbs-up means the word is spelled correctly and the student is given another word. Those who misspell a word are eliminated.

Rocio Ramirez, a sixth-grader at Palm Springs Middle, wasn't nervous until it was her turn to spell.

Her biggest fear, she said, was getting the word ''anniversary.''

''No matter how hard I try to remember that word, I always mess up,'' said the 12-year-old, who lost her hearing as a baby from a high fever.

Minutes later, it was Rocio's turn. She sat still, watching her teacher, Kris Dixon, sign and mouth the word ''foreign.''

Rocio struggled as she jotted down the letters F-R-N-D-I-T.

She looked up sadly at Dixon, knowing she had made a mistake.

For many deaf people, spelling can be challenging because they cannot hear the sounds, said Dawn Jenkins, who teaches at Palm Springs Middle.

''For them it's a visual memory,'' Jenkins said. ''We have to give them clues so they can remember the words.''

To prepare for the spelling bee, the students in grades 3-12 spend about a month studying word lists that are provided by the Hearing Research Institute, the sponsor of the spelling bee.

Robert Pickard, a South Miami ear, nose and throat doctor who founded the Hearing Research Institute, started the countywide spelling bee in 2002 to focus on the importance of spelling, reading and writing to deaf people.

The average deaf or hearing-impaired high school student graduates with a fourth-grade reading level, he said.


''We want to use the deaf spelling bee to improve their vocabulary and make them more aware of what reading is all about,'' Pickard said.

The students, representing 15 Miami-Dade schools, competed for first-, second- and third-place prizes.

All winners took home trophies, and the first-place winners received a $50 U.S. Savings Bond from the Hearing and Research Institute.

Though Victor had fun hanging out with his friends during the competition and putting his spelling skills to work, he was disappointed that he didn't come out on top -- as he expected.

''I can't believe I didn't remember how to spell the word 'remember,''' Victor said. ''But there is always next year.''

© 2004 Miami Herald