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November 22, 2004

Loud and clear: Sign language a sound approach for charter school

From: Dallas Morning News - Dallas,TX,USA - Nov 22, 2004

By TOYA LYNN STEWART / The Dallas Morning News

Before Fahim Azizi began attending school at Arlington's Jean Massieu Academy, communicating with people outside of his family was nearly impossible.

Fahim, 16, lost his hearing about 10 years ago after a bomb exploded near his home in Afghanistan. It also claimed the lives of his sister and father.

From then on, he relied on gestures to communicate with his mother and brother. About two years ago, when the family moved to Texas, he learned about Jean Massieu Academy – an open-enrollment charter school where classes are taught in American Sign Language.

Since enrolling in the school, which opened in 1999, the cheerful freshman has quickly learned ASL and how to write and understand English.

"I still struggle with some of the words, the bigger words, but I practice every day," Fahim said though interpreter Kristen Jackson, who is also one of his teachers.

"JMA has good leaders, and it's a good place to learn," he said.

Twelve families, nine of them with deaf children, founded the school to create educational opportunities for their children, said Sue Hill, one of the founders, who is also deaf.

"We were all very concerned about the education our children were receiving in public schools," Ms. Hill said through an interpreter, Bobby Dunivan, who also serves as the school's business manager.

"Nothing against public schools, but they weren't meeting the needs of our children ... mostly the communication needs," said Ms. Hill, who has two children who are also deaf.

Many of the deaf or hearing-impaired children were also missing out on the peer-to-peer interaction, she said.

"I have a strong philosophy that language requires strong interaction – any language," she said. "At this school, language skills really advance and develop.

"Here, American Sign Language is the primary language and English is the second language," said Ms. Hill, adding that the academy recently received a 10-year renewal of its charter agreement with the state.

The school is required by law to follow the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills curriculum. It also follows the state's testing requirements, Ms. Hill said.

"It's our teaching methods that are different," she said.

And that's one of the reasons it's successful, said Richard Lloyd, whose 7-year-old son, Conor Lloyd, is enrolled in the school. Mr. Lloyd is also vice president of the school's foundation.

"They are committed to the vision ... which is to teach the kids using American Sign Language education," Mr. Lloyd said.

When the school opened, it was located in rented spaces in Irving and Duncanville. The school purchased an old Arlington church a year ago, renovated it and began holding classes there this fall.

The school relies on state funding, grants and donations to operate. There is no tuition, said Mr. Dunivan.

Mr. Lloyd believes that now, with the school in a permanent home, families will relocate to Arlington to be near the campus. There are 180 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade at the school.

The student body is economically, socially, culturally and geographically diverse; most of the students are from Dallas or Fort Worth. It also includes hearing and deaf students.

"We have hearing kids here who have deaf parents or siblings, and in order to communicate, they need to use ASL," Mr. Lloyd said.

Academy teacher Laura Hill, who is deaf, said she's excited about the education the students get. Her 3-year-old daughter, who is also deaf, attends the school.

"Here, the students get exposed to deaf culture and have interaction with deaf role models," Ms. Hill said through an interpreter. Ms. Hill is not related to Sue Hill.

It's a culture that Crystal Tercero, 18, a senior, said she appreciates.

"I like JMA because they challenge my education," said Crystal, who enrolled in the school five years ago. "I socialize with deaf people and it's better here.

"Before, I went to a hearing school, and I always had to use my speech," Crystal said through an interpreter. "Here, I use my speech and ASL, but I prefer ASL."

In the public school, Crystal said she struggled academically because she wasn't always able to communicate the way she needed to. At the academy, she's on the honor roll and receives A's in her classes, said Crystal, who lost her hearing as a toddler after being hit by a car.

Ms. Jackson, a teacher, said the school provides "a comfortable environment where they feel safe and secure."

Just like in Fahim's case.

When he enrolled at the school, he just pointed and used gestures, she said.

"We started with his ABCs and necessity words like bathroom and water," she said.

Ms. Jackson said that as Fahim began to understand ASL and English, he became eager and excited.

"At the beginning, he'd always say, 'It's just too much,' " she said. "Then he began to say, 'Teach me more.' "


Jean Massieu Academy

Elementary (pre-k through fifth): 86 students
Middle school (sixth-eighth): 46 students
High school (ninth-12th): 44 students

Ethnic summary:
Asian, 4%
Black, 24%
Hispanic, 36%
White, 34%

Deaf-to-hearing ratio:
Deaf, 65%
Hearing, 35%

© 2004 Belo Interactive Inc.