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March 18, 2006

Deaf students compete at Manchester Memorial

From: The Union Leader - Manchester,NH,USA - Mar 18, 2006

Union Leader Staff
Saturday, Mar. 18, 2006

Manchester – The hallways of Memorial High School were packed yesterday. And nearly silent.

The Crusaders are proud hosts of Gallaudet University’s Northeast Region Academic Bowl, which draws 16 teams of deaf students from New England and New York in a competition to advance to next month’s national final in Washington, D.C.

Preliminary rounds took place yesterday, and the competition concludes today with the top two teams advancing.

Like any competition, athletic or academic, participants in the Academic Bowl have their eye on the prize. But calling yesterday’s atmosphere at Memorial friendly would be an understatement.

For deaf students, this was their day to be in the majority. This was their time to be surrounded by people just like them, when everywhere one looked hands were flying about, furiously signing conversations about the day’s events and catching up on old times.

“This is their home base. This is their high school,” said Linda O’Connell, a coach with Manchester’s team, describing her students’ feelings. “I think it’s even more important for them. They’re beaming.”

The Academic Bowl is structured much like New Hampshire Public Television’s long-running “Granite State Challenge.” Teams of four, with one alternate, match up and answer questions in various formats. Each team played four matches yesterday, and each will play three more today. That will be followed by the semifinals, a third-place match and the final.

The Manchester Program for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing squared off against the Rochester (N.Y.) School for the Deaf early yesterday morning.

Questions were displayed on a large screen at the front of the school’s auditorium while being signed by the moderator. The teams had a time limit to write down their answers and show the judges, who then held up a green “yes” or red “no” sign for the audience to see.

The teams had their own small cheering sections, but any observer without an impairment could easily hear air rushing through the ventilation system overhead. When deaf people cheer, they don’t put their hands together. They raise them high and wave them back and forth.

At the end of the first preliminary match, the Rochester fans were doing most of the waving. Final score: RSD 70, MSDHH 38.

That didn’t bother Ashley Vance of Raymond.

Vance, 16, a junior at Memorial, said the questions were tough but she thought the team did well. Rochester, she said, was a tough opening draw.

“I competed last year in Fitchburg (Mass.),” said Vance, signing to an interpreter. “I was very nervous and excited and I learned a lot.” This year, she said, the team has put in a lot of practice and is looking forward to the rest of the competition. “It’s a lot of fun,” she said.

“Our goal, I think, is to show good sportsmanship. We’d love to win, but if we don’t we still want to have a good time.”

There is one other school from New Hampshire in the competition, Tri-City, representing Portsmouth, Oyster River and Nashua.

This is the 10th year Gallaudet has sponsored the Academic Bowl. Deborah DeStefano, the university’s executive director in its Office of Enrollment Services, said it has grown from 12 teams the first year to 150 today. “And we have teams on the waiting list,” she said.

The Washington, D.C., school is the nation’s only university dedicated exclusively to teaching the deaf. The Academic Bowl, said DeStefano, serves an important purpose for Gallaudet and deaf high school students throughout the country.

“We want to set high standards,” she said, “and by Gallaudet hosting this we want to say, ‘these are the standards we have.’”

Looking around a break room filled with competitors yesterday, DeStefano said she hopes many of them will soon be strolling through Gallaudet’s campus as undergraduates.

Mike Wallace, program coordinator for the deaf in Manchester, is serving as the Academic Bowl’s host. “It is an honor, for sure,” he said.

Manchester’s program serves 40 students at four schools throughout the city, from elementary through high school. Seeing his students mixing with dozens of other deaf kids, meeting new people and renewing friendships, Wallace said socializing is a big part of the event.

The 80 kids and 32 coaches went bowling in Merrimack last night, and tonight they will be dancing in a hotel ballroom.

“They’re just thrilled to be surrounded by so many other deaf students,” said DeStefano.

©2006 The Union Leader