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November 21, 2004

More students offering helping hands

From: San Diego Union Tribune - San Diego,CA,USA - Nov 21, 2004

By Sherry Parmet

November 21, 2004

CARLSBAD – Kindergarten teacher Laura Henken begins the school day using American Sign Language to ask how her pupils are feeling. They respond by signing.

Henken also signs for them to stand for the flag salute, dim the lights or recite their numbers. And pupils sign to request a trip to the drinking fountain or a bathroom break.

Her students at Magnolia Elementary School aren't deaf or hard of hearing. Her lessons help them befriend the 50 North County students, from preschool through sixth grade, sent to the campus because of the disability.

Enrollment in American Sign Language classes has surged among public schools across the nation as a growing number of colleges count the courses toward meeting foreign-language entrance requirements.

In Carlsbad Unified, which serves North County's deaf and hard-of-hearing population, many students start learning to sign as young as 5.

"There were so many deaf kids at Magnolia that if you didn't know how to sign you'd have trouble at recess," said Tasha Kellett, a junior at Carlsbad High who learned to sign at Magnolia and has continued her ASL education.

Five years ago, Carlsbad High offered sign language to just 20 students, but as interest in ASL grew rapidly, so did the school's program, which now has three teachers leading about 400 mostly hearing students. The classes fill quickly and students are often turned away.

For many, the lessons began at Magnolia.

Henken, who studied ASL at Palomar College after she was hired at Magnolia, signs daily with her hearing pupils, who have learned to sign colors, days of the week and songs such as "Over the River."

"I had one student who couldn't remember his numbers or colors in English or Spanish (his native language), but he could sign each one," she said.

Henken's pupils are just as apt at signing their emotions as voicing them. One recent morning, all of the children signed that they were happy, except for a 5-year-old who made a clawing motion with her hand in front of her face, signaling she was mad because her mom was out of town.

ASL lessons are informally incorporated by Magnolia teachers into their curriculum so their students will better understand the deaf culture.

Henken's pupils visit the classrooms of their deaf peers so they can see the kids are just like them.

Students can begin a more formal ASL education at Carlsbad's Valley Middle School, where more than a dozen deaf and hard-of-hearing students are enrolled. Hearing students can take a beginning sign-language course and can continue in an advanced class at Carlsbad High School, which offers four levels of ASL over a four-year span.

Enrollment in American Sign Language courses in California public schools has more than quadrupled in five years to nearly 9,000 students, making it the fifth-most popular language, after Spanish, French, Japanese and German. Eighty-three public schools in the state offer ASL classes.

In the San Diego Unified School District, sign language was taught to more than 500 high school students last year compared with about 40 students six years earlier.

The trend is also evident in colleges, said Rosemary Feal, director of the New York-based Modern Language Association.

Studies and research in American Sign Language has risen dramatically, she said, and students want to learn it regardless of whether it's relevant to their lives and majors.

At Carlsbad High, ASL appeals to some students who struggled with Spanish and to visual learners, who tend to appreciate the motions involved in signing.

"It was really hard for me to get the Spanish pronunciations down," junior Kat Wardle said. "And you have to be able to learn a lot before you can actually have a conversation."

American Sign Language was easier for her to grasp.

Carlsbad High ASL teacher Denise Denn, who is deaf, said her most advanced students, who have taken ASL for four years, regularly work with Magnolia's deaf children. Those who participate in cheerleading or athletics demonstrate techniques and explain the rules.

"When I was in school, I was curious about what the cheerleaders were saying, but I was left out because nobody could communicate with me," Denn said. "I think it's important for my students to tell the deaf kids what they're saying when they're cheering, and what the rules are for soccer."

Carlsbad High junior Karima Said, who is deaf, doesn't speak but can sign. Her mother encouraged the school to create an ASL program, and now hearing students can communicate with Karima. As a result, she feels less socially isolated on campus.

In Denn's highest-level ASL class, the hearing students are so versed in ASL communication that only snippets of verbal conversation are needed.

Senior Erik Mann, a hearing student, is so at ease with the signs that he unconsciously makes them off campus when nervous or chatting with peers.

"My friends are always like, 'What are you doing?' " he said. "But I love this class. It's a lot of fun."

• Sherry Parmet: (760) 476-8238;

Carlsbad High School American Sign Language students will present "Happening Hands," a variety show of songs and skits, Nov. 30 at 7 p.m.

• Tickets are $7, and the performance will be at the Carlsbad Community Cultural Art Center, 3557 Monroe St. For more information, call Penny Montes at (760) 331-5100. Proceeds will go toward a college scholarship fund for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

© Copyright 2004 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.