Posted by: sbilingual | March 12, 2012

Deaf students new to US find their footing

James Alzate-Medina’s first day of school was bewildering.

Teachers and students at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing sat together in circles, waving their hands in the air like frenzied birds. Using sign language, teenagers interrupted adults and talked over one another to ask questions and blurt out answers.

Alzate-Medina was 15, and after a childhood of silence at school and at home in Colombia, Horace Mann was the first place he had been where kids like him could express themselves and be understood.

“I didn’t know what any of the signs meant,’’ Alzate-Medina said in American Sign Language a few weeks ago. “But teachers showed me pictures that went along with signs, and then I learned vocabulary, and then I started to string things together.’’

Alzate-Medina, now 22, is one of a handful of students to have graduated from a two-year-old program at the Horace Mann School, one of the first in the country to target deaf teenagers who immigrate to the United States.For these students, the challenges of being deaf amplify the struggles of being a young immigrant:

They learn English and American Sign Language simultaneously, trying not to confuse the different grammar and syntax. They struggle with basic academic concepts like telling time or putting names to feelings. And even as they learn to communicate at the Horace Mann School, which is on Allston’s Armington Street, they may still lack a common language with family members.

“It’s hard for us to imagine how isolated some of these kids are in their communities,’’ said Fiona Bennie, one of four teachers responsible for the 16 students in the program. “They are, without exception, very loved. But the lack of communication is profound and extreme, and they feel very cut off.’’

Students in the school’s program – officially called Language Enrichment and Academic Pursuit, or LEAP – come from public schools in developing countries that lack special classes for deaf children, where they struggled to keep up with lessons they couldn’t hear.

For those students, the challenges typically continue when they arrive in the United States, where they are placed in classes with American-born peers who began learning sign language as toddlers.

Harold Johnson, a professor at the Michigan State University College of Education, said deaf educators are aware that immigrant deaf children have specific needs, but not much is known about how best to educate them.

“This is an area we are not addressing with teacher preparation programs,’’ Johnson said. “It’s not in any of the national standards to train teachers how to reach out to parents of deaf children for whom English is not their first language.’’

The LEAP program existed in concept at the Horace Mann School for years, but was formalized in 2010. It aims to give the students what they need to succeed: flexible schedules, small groups based on skill level, and an integrated curriculum.

But the instructors often find themselves teaching more than academics.

“My kids may not know the names of any of the people they live with,’’ said Katy Burns, LEAP team leader, “because nobody’s told them.’’

Chief among these knowledge gaps, Burns said, is their internal sense of time. Because they grew up without hearing offhand remarks like “We’re leaving in 30 minutes’’ or “I’ll see you next week,’’ they have trouble grasping what it means to feel time pass. One student, she said, had never been told the meaning of “weekend.’’

“I had to sit him down on a Friday and explain, ‘OK, tomorrow, you’re going to wake up at home, and the next day you’re going to wake up at home, and then the day after that you’re going to wake up and come back to school,’ ’’ Burns said.

“How does that not look like they’re stupid?’’ she continued. “But you forget how much linguistic information is conveyed auditorily when you’re a little kid.’’

For Thuc Ha Tran, 17, who came to the Horace Mann School in 2007, much of her language education came from peers. She was 10 years old when she arrived, knowing only snatches of Vietnamese Sign Language, which is completely different from the American equivalent.

“The other kids – they helped me so much,’’ Thuc Ha said in sign language last month. “I learned to sign, little by little. Now I feel like I have an awakening moment of, ‘Aha!’ ’’

Once the students start communicating, Bennie said, they never want to stop. They beg teachers to hang out in the classroom during lunch to chat. And they dread the start of summer vacation. “Many of them sit at home, bored, for most of the summer,’’ Bennie said.

Even as students gain fluency in sign language and written English, they can’t communicate with family members who have not invested the time to learn American Sign Language.

Parent-teacher-student conferences often involve two interpreters: One translates from the students’ American Sign Language to English, and the other translates English into the parents’ language.

Students anticipate these meetings, creating a list of questions they want to ask their parents: What’s the name of that food we eat every night? Why did my sister move away?

In some cases, teachers advocate for the students, urging parents not to dismiss their child’s capabilities.

When 16-year-old Oscar Coello’s teachers first suggested that he ride the MBTA to school, his mother, Maria Cerna, balked.

“We said, ‘Oh, no, he’s going to get lost,’ ’’ said Cerna, in Spanish. “Now he goes all over Boston.’’

A shared language, Burns said, is the largest barrier to parents’ understanding the capabilities and talents of their children.

“If you don’t know how to communicate with your child very easily, then you don’t really know them. I meet parents and say, ‘Do you know how funny your child is?’ And they’re like, ‘Really? I didn’t know that,’ ’’ Burns said.

“The parents regret it, too,’’ she said. “It’s hard to watch another adult interact with your kids in a way that you can’t.’’Learning American Sign Language has made all the difference for parents like Marisol Rondon, of Dorchester, whose son Maximo started at the Horace Mann School eight years ago. She took a few classes and, although she is not fluent, being able to share a language with her son has allowed her to know him better.

In the Dominican Republic, she said, people assumed her child would end up homeless or a burden on his family. She urges other immigrant parents to shake that attitude: “I feel sad because the parents make the kids feel like they are less.’’

Alzate-Medina lives with his aunt, and they have trouble communicating. Mostly, he sends her text messages in broken English, asking if he can stay out past dinner. He tried to teach his aunt some signs, but she holds down several jobs and is too busy to learn.

“Because of the communication barrier, there is very limited talking between us,’’ Alzate-Medina said. “I don’t really know her personality that well.’’

On Jan. 27, two days before his 22d birthday, Alzate-Medina had his last day of school.

(Special-education students are entitled to public schooling only through the age of 21.)

Now, he’s hoping to get a visa, which might lead to a job. His dreams: Go to college. Become an American citizen. Maybe start his own business and hire deaf employees.

But he wishes he had more time in the LEAP program. Now that he’s no longer in the classroom, he has nobody to talk to.

To find out how Bilingual Resources Group can support your interpretation, translation and bilingual staffing needs, please call 504-253-0364 or visit



  1. Reblogged this on A Silent Heart and commented:
    Here is an excellent post that exemplifies the importance of clear communication in relationships.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: