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April 12, 2005

Signs of Friendship

From: Monitor, TX - Apr 12, 2005

April 12,2005
Kathryn Walson
The Monitor

On a recent school day, Seguin Elementary fourth-graders Kenia De Leon and Alejandra Juarez paired up to practice multiplication problems that appeared on a laptop in front of them. They crunched numbers on separate pieces of paper, and if Kenia needed help, Alejandra quickly came to her aid.

But unlike their classmates, the pair communicated silently — in sign language.

"I'm happy here," said Kenia, who is deaf, of her new school. Alejandra, who is hearing, said she learned sign language from her deaf cousin.

Kenia and 25 other deaf third- through fifth-graders moved from Roosevelt Elementary to Seguin in January. Seguin has more classroom space and is more centrally located, officials said.

The transition has been a smooth one, according to everyone involved. Deaf students and their teachers said they've felt incredibly welcome at Seguin.

"At the beginning, they (deaf students) were nervous," said Beatrice Garcia, one of Seguin's three teachers of the deaf, who recieve help from three instructional assistants.

"They were excited at the same time. They knew they'd meet new friends. When they arrived, they were surprised to see students excited to meet them."

Principal Margaret Ramirez has since incorporated sign language into the school's daily morning assembly. Students sign "The Star-Spangled Banner" and pledges of allegiance to the United States and Texas flags.

The bilingual campus alternates each day between English and Spanish. Now with exposure to sign language, Ramirez hopes students will pick up a third language.

Having deaf students on campus "helps (hearing) children accept people with differences," she said.

Deaf and hearing friends mostly interact during PE and recess, when they're brought together. Some deaf students said they have a mix of deaf and hearing friends.

Some hearing children, like Alejandra, already knew some sign language. Although no sign language classes have been offered, some teachers and students have learned words and phrases from from deaf students and their interpreters and teachers. Hearing girls have asked instructional assistant Gloria Plohocky how to say "Will you be my friend?" to deaf girls, she said.

Most deaf students are in small classes with seven or nine other deaf students. Some particularly successful students enter mainstream classrooms with an interpreter for a subject or two.

Although Kenia didn't know multiplication upon joining Abigail Espinoza's mainstream math class, she's learned fast, Espinoza said. Teaching deaf students is a challenge, but an enjoyable one, she said. She's learned a few signs from students, teachers and interpretors.

"If you're a person who adapts, it doesn't hinder you (in teaching). You have to be open-minded and willing to learn," Espinoza said. "I would probably be the first one to enroll" in a sign language class "to communicate effectively with another part of our community."

The McAllen school district is home to the Regional School for the Deaf, which serves about 120 students. They come from as far as La Feria and Roma, meaning more than a one-hour one-way commute for some. They're divided among four schools — Seguin and Escandon for elementary students, Brown for middle school students and Memorial for high school students.

Martha Tamez, a hearing fifth-grader at Seguin, regularly chats with deaf friends at recess. She said she's taken sign language classes and practiced for awhile.

"It's fun. You get to move your hands," she said.

Kathryn Walson covers education and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach her at (956) 683-4434.

© 2005 The Monitor and Freedom Interactive Newspapers of Texas, Inc. All rights reserved.