L.A. Unified’s bilingual program for deaf students hailed as a model for California schools

L.A. Unified’s bilingual program for deaf students hailed as a model for California schools

Credit: Claire Cassidy

Michele Bergeron learned to sign so she could communicate with her son, Lennon.

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Michele Bergeron knows that her 5-year-old son, who’s deaf, likes watermelon and pizza. He’s obsessed with airplanes, wants to play football, likes books about Spider-Man and someday wants to be tall like his dad.

“Without sign language, I never would have known any of this,” said the Fremont mother. “Sign language is the most important thing for deaf children and their families to learn. How else are you going to communicate? How will you know your child’s hopes and dreams?”

Her son, Lennon, attends California School for the Deaf in Fremont, a public K-12 school for deaf and hard-of-hearing students from throughout Northern California. Students as young as 14 months learn to sign at the same time they learn to read and write in English, which allows them to master both languages and communicate with their deaf peers and the hearing world alike.

That bilingual model for deaf children is the basis of a new initiative at Los Angeles Unified that deaf education advocates hope districts around the state will replicate. The district’s new Deaf and Hard of Hearing Education program will offer American Sign Language alongside English to deaf children beginning in infancy.

The resolution’s authors hope that other districts follow Los Angeles Unified’s lead, boosting sign language through bilingual programs that allow students to learn academic content in ASL from their earliest years through 12th grade and beyond.

“It’s important, it’s landmark, it’s critical, because until now, too many deaf students have been denied language equity and education,” said Rachel Friedman Narr, professor of deaf education at Cal State Northridge. “This is going to be revolutionary for deaf students. … The hope is that this will be a model for districts across the state.”

The move is long overdue, advocates said. Deaf and hard-of-hearing students typically lag years behind their hearing peers, in part because they miss out on the cognitive and social benefits of early language development. According to a 2016 report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office, deaf and hard-of-hearing students scored far below their hearing peers’ state average on math and literacy assessments.

(Video produced by Andrew Reed, EdSource’s digital communication and community engagement manager.)

But children who learn sign language at a young age can recoup some of those losses, said Mallorie Evans, an educational audiologist with L.A. Unified who worked on the new program.

“The brain doesn’t make a distinction between visual and auditory language,” Evans said. “That’s why this is so important.”

But some parents fought the district’s move. They said it bypasses the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, the federal law that oversees special education in U.S. schools because the district would enroll students automatically rather than allowing parents to opt in. Under the law, students with disabilities have individual education plans (IEPs) that parents, teachers, therapists and others agree on. The district’s resolution states that “nothing in this resolution shall prevent any parent or guardian from exercising their rights at an IEP,” but some parents felt it didn’t go far enough to ensure their input in their children’s education.

“This resolution is in violation of federal law, and it cannot stand. It is so, so wrong,” said Donna Sorkin, director of the American Cochlear Implant Alliance, which advocates for the use of electronic devices that help deaf and hard-of-hearing people perceive sound. “We are not against ASL, but we believe parents have the right to make informed choices for their children.”

Multiple studies show that deaf children who learn sign language from an early age benefit in myriad ways, including higher literacy rates, better mental health and improved cognition overall. One 2017 study, published in the Maternal and Child Health Journal, showed that deaf children who don’t learn sign language suffer widespread developmental delays.

California has about 17,000 students who are deaf and hard of hearing. Most of them attend traditional schools, either in mainstream classes with the help of an interpreter or in special classes for deaf students taught in sign language. But because there are relatively few deaf students, most districts don’t offer special classes, leaving deaf students to fall further behind.

About 900 deaf students attend one of California’s two schools dedicated to deaf education, the California Schools for the Deaf in Fremont and Riverside. Students can board there beginning at age 5, living in cottages with other deaf children and staff. Students in the day program begin as young as 14 months.

Immersed in sign language, children learn to communicate with their classmates and teachers while simultaneously learning English literacy skills. In a typical preschool classroom, a picture of an apple, for example, shows the word “apple” in English and ASL. Children learn sign language the same way they learn to communicate in English — first by learning to sign their names, then their classmates’ names, and advancing to colors, shapes, animals, foods and other simple words.

Credit: Andrew Reed / EdSource

Jake Smith V., left, uses American Sign Language with pre-kindergarten teacher Leeza Williams at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont.

“In order to achieve developmental milestones, you need to have language,” said Julie Rems-Smario, early language and education specialist at California School for the Deaf in Fremont. “A lot of deaf children are denied these milestones because they’re never taught to sign. Here, they learn to sign naturally, through play and experience.”

But most students enroll at the School for the Deaf in high school, after spending their elementary and middle school years in mainstream classrooms. When they arrive, those students are typically 5 to 6 years behind academically, Rems-Smario said, not because they’re incapable of doing the work but because for most of their school careers they couldn’t understand what was happening in the classroom.

Jax Carpenter, a sophomore at the School for the Deaf, arrived there when he was in sixth grade. Prior to that, he was in mainstream classes in Sacramento, where his family lives. Even though he wears cochlear implants, he has difficulty hearing and was often lost at school.

“I had an interpreter, but I never felt comfortable,” he said in sign language. “I couldn’t talk to people. Everything went right by me. But this is totally different. I can pay attention. It’s a huge improvement.”

Ninth grader Kaloni Rosby lives in Oakland and has been attending the School for the Deaf since kindergarten.

“This is an amazing school,” he said through an interpreter. “You get a good education. You can understand everything that’s going on. Plus you get all the social activities. My experience here has been tremendous. I grew up here. This is my home.”

Chang-May, a senior from Fremont, described her time at mainstream school as frustrating.

“It felt very limited,” she signed. “My potential was capped. I didn’t have the opportunities to explore what I want to do. When it comes to community and interacting with people, as a deaf student you just can’t get that in a mainstream school.”

Bergeron’s son, Lennon, was born deaf. When he was 9 months old doctors gave him cochlear implants, but Lennon never adjusted to wearing them and ultimately, they weren’t much help, Bergeron said. So she and her husband decided to learn sign language and immersed themselves into the deaf community. They moved from San Jose to Fremont to be closer to the School for the Deaf, and Michele enrolled in a graduate program in deaf education. She now has a master’s degree and teaches at the School for the Deaf.

“I’ve been so inspired by the deaf community and made so many friendships — I feel so grateful to have a deaf child,” Bergeron said. “If you have a deaf child, ASL is so important for your child to live a full life. Communication is a right — who am I to take that away from him?

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