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Signs of Progress : Deaf Students at Madison Cram for College Careers

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Madison High School senior Joelene Crawford wants to study computers in college and find a well-paying job. Fellow senior Stacey Ennis plans on community college after graduating next June. Robert Weiniger is going to architecture school in New York.

Normal enough goals for teen-agers beginning their final year of secondary schooling. Except that these seniors, who began school Monday, have faced more than the normal ups and downs that teen-agers go through while making their way toward graduation.

They and about 50 other Madison students are deaf, most of them unable to hear any sounds other than strong vibrations such as rhythmic beating on a table. They must communicate through sign language--the rapid movement of their hands deftly spelling out various words and concepts--combined with lip reading.

They started classes Monday with the same enthusiasm and curiosity as their hearing peers, albeit without the cacophony of sounds that usually accompany teen-agers as they stream back to school for a year of study. The rapid back-and-forth hand motions among the deaf students Monday attested to the same love of grapevine gossip and social interaction as their peers.

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“I’m just happy that I’ve finally made it to my senior year,” Ennis said, aided during an interview by interpreter Diane Goodman, one of 20 specialists who help the deaf students blend into school activities and provide encouragement when needed. The city schools program for deaf students is centered at Madison.

“I admire their determination,” Goodman said. She and the other specialists in the deaf program noted that the dropout rate for deaf students is far lower than the 33% four-year high school district average despite the additional hardships they face. “They believe they can succeed.”

Each day some of the deaf students attend the same classes--from regular to advanced, depending on the subject--that students who hear normally take. The deaf students are accompanied by their interpreters, who translate during classes. Other deaf students take part of their classes with mainstream students while studying part of the day in self-contained classes with teachers trained in sign language.

“The hardest part for me is to associate with hearing people,” senior Kellet Reams said. Crawford added adding that often “it is hard to be the only deaf person in the class.”

Crawford said that she must concentrate much harder when in a mainstream class in order to keep up. “In (a self-contained) class, we tend to talk more (in sign language with classmates) and maybe get lower grades,” she said.

Weiniger tries not to think about the fact that he is deaf. “I just think about the responsibility that I have to myself. You have to be positive about yourself.”

Same Teen-Age Tastes

The world of teen-agers includes the popular cultural staples of music, fashion and movies, and that of the deaf students is no exception. From Michael Jackson to costume jewelry to worn jeans, their tastes are similar.

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“We look at television, we read magazines and get ideas for fashions just like anyone else,” Ennis said. “We have to read more to keep up,” Crawford said.

Friendships with hearing students help with the effort.

“Sure, there are problems of communication,” Crawford said, “but we make friends and some can even speak to us” through sign language. Teacher Candy Schauer offers a popular elective course at Madison for hearing students in which she teaches sign language. There are plans this year to pair the class with a hard-of-hearing English course where the deaf students can help with sign language and the hearing students can help with reading, teacher Joyce Brody said.

The deaf program comes under the special education provisions of the school district’s budget and suffered cuts along with other special education programs during budget deliberations earlier this spring.

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“We have shifted people around, where teachers now maybe go to more than one school during the day,” Brody said. “That makes it much harder on teachers--a higher stress level--but the students won’t suffer much.”


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