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August 18, 2004

Pencils, pens -- and sign language

From: Martins Ferry Times Leader, OH - Aug 18, 2004

By ERIC AYRES, St. Clairsville Bureau Chief

INCOMING FRESHMAN Ashly Brumfield is looking forward to returning to school next week in her hometown of St. Clairsville. It will be the first time since preschool that she won't be attending classes in Zanesville, where the school system has a hearing impaired program.

However, the petite freshman won't be attending classes alone. During a special meeting Tuesday night of the St. Clairsville-Richland City School District's Board of Education, the board approved a recommendation to hire David Cornett as a sign language interpreter for this coming school year. Cornett's employment will allow Brumfield to receive her education in the local public school district.

School officials in St. Clairsville welcomed the incoming student and her new interpreter to the district Tuesday.

"We're very excited about having Dave on board, and we're very excited to have Ashly coming to the school district," said Superintendent Bill Zanders.

Brumfield's mom, Shelly Randall, said her daughter began excelling in mainstream courses at the Zanesville school in recent years, bringing home all As and Bs. She also received an award for academic achievement.

"I thought that if she could do it, then I think it's time to come back home," said Randall.

For years, Brumfield had to endure the long commute from St. Clairsville to Zanesville. Hearing impaired students from throughout the Eastern Ohio area around Zanesville also racked up extra miles to attend the special program at the school, but she was the student who traveled the greatest distance.

"I hated it, because I had to go back and forth every day," Brumfield said.

The daily journey averaged about 1.5 hours in each direction, and at times, the school day experience - including travel time - could take as much as 12 hours out of the day.

To help accommodate Brumfield's enrollment in St. Clairsville for the 2004-05 school year, school officials interviewed a number of candidates to take a special position as sign language interpreter. An interview team - which included Brumfield - took part in the screening process over the past few weeks.

Cornett was also someone from the St. Clairsville area who was interested in reestablishing his roots back home this summer.

The area native has since studied across the country and worked internationally. A pastor and administrator at St. Anne Parish in Webster Springs, W.Va. since 1999, Cornett is currently on leave for at least a year from the Catholic priesthood.

He was looking forward to spending time with family in the Ohio Valley, and was thrilled to hear through the grapevine that the St. Clairsville school district was looking for a full-time sign language interpreter.

"For me, this is like a dream job," he said. "I've lived away from home for a long time."

Cornett began learning sign language in 1977 while studying at Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa. He continued to work among the deaf while completing graduate studies at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His studies took him to Montreal and then to Zaire, where he continued work at African schools for the deaf.

In the 1990s, Cornett worked as director of the deaf Apostolate in the Archdiocese of Kinshasa, in Zaire and the Congo. He subsequently worked at Madonna University in Michigan, serving as an interpreter for a deaf Congolese student.

Cornett is fluent in five languages, including American sign language and Bantu sign language - a Congolese sign language in which he has written two dictionaries.

While in St. Clairsville, Cornett will spend all of his time with Brumfield to help her communicate with all of the teachers and students. School officials said it will be interesting to see how the unique situation turns out. They predicted that Ashly's presence will motivate other students and teachers to learn to sign.

Brumfield said she has a passion for drawing and was particularly interested in attending high school art classes in St. Clairsville. As far as foreign languages go, Ashly mentioned Tuesday night that she was considering taking up Spanish.

Cornett, who is fluent in French and English, said he didn't speak Spanish.

"But that's OK, Ashly," he told her through signs. "If you want to learn Spanish, then I'll learn it with you."

Copyright © 2004 — The Times Leader