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N.Y.C. Gives Nod to Sign Language for Deaf

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As a student at New York City's Junior High School 47 in the 1950s, Dorothy Cohler had a teacher who kept a chart showing how often the students, who were deaf, used sign language. Those who signed too often couldn't go on a field trip to Coney Island.

It was just one of the ways her teachers, none of whom was deaf, discouraged signing, she said.

So the recent decision that the New York City public schools will adopt a "bilingual" approach to deaf education that emphasizes the use of American Sign Language was particularly welcome news to Ms. Cohler, who has taught at her alma mater for the past 20 years. The school, the city system's only one devoted exclusively to serving the hearing-impaired, will teach students ASL and then use that as a base to teach both written and spoken English.

"It will allow [students] to read and write at a much higher level," Ms. Cohler said last week in a telephone interview using a relay service.

A Clear Policy

New York City Schools Chancellor Rudy F. Crew announced the change this month as part of an overhaul of the 89-year-old school, which, though still called JHS 47, serves about 280 students from infancy to age 21 who are deaf or hearing-impaired. The hope, Mr. Crew said, was to "set a national standard for the education of the deaf."

To be carried out over the next three years, the reforms include awarding state board of regents diplomas for the first time. Previously, students would finish the 10th grade at JHS 47 and then go on to a mainstream program or a school for the deaf outside the system to complete high school.

"For a long time, the school offered a watered-down version of a general education curriculum," Martin Florsheim, the school's first deaf principal, said through an interpreter.

One of the most important changes will be the use of ASL as the primary method of instruction for JHS 47's deaf students. Until now, the school has relied on an inconsistent mix of some sign language, lip-reading, and residual hearing.

"There was no real clear-cut communication policy in our school," Mr. Florsheim said. "And this is why students who have left the school have not been able to read at the same grade level as hearing students."

Proponents say ASL, which has its own syntax and grammar, is the natural language of the deaf community. There are some 60 schools for the deaf--most of them state-run--in the country, but many have been slow to emphasize the use of ASL, said Russell S. Rosen, an assistant professor of deaf education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

"We will use ASL to teach deaf children English literature, reading, and English language," Mr. Rosen said.

Mr. Rosen drafted recommendations at the request of state Assemblyman Steven Sanders, after the New York City Democrat heard of concerns about poor student performance at the school from parents and alumni.

Approach Debated

But not all experts in the education of the deaf are convinced that greater use of ASL alone will yield improved student performance.

"I don't think I would say you should not be using ASL," said Arthur Boothroyd, a professor of speech and hearing at the graduate center of the City University of New York. "But I would say you've got to move from that to a written form of English, and I'm not sure you can have that without an understanding of English in its spoken form."

The school needs to train more of its teachers in ASL, Mr. Florsheim said. Most of the 90 teachers, some of whom are deaf, are not proficient in the language, he said.

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