A Show of Hands

By Sara Sklaroff — February 23, 1994 10 min read

On a snowy day in January, Marcia Passi’s 5th, 6th, and 7th graders are figuring out fractions. Perched around a U of tables, they arch their bodies over the tabletops to get a good look at the 12 paper Oreo cookies their teacher has spread out on the floor. Passi writes the first equation on the dry-erase board: What’s 1/3 of 12? No one responds.

To illustrate the division process of fractions, she sets out three Styrofoam plates and starts separating the cookies. She places one cookie on the first plate, another on the second, and a third on the last plate. As she continues to divide up the cookies, Passi coaxes the class to come up with the answer.

By the time she’s on her last round of cookies--with four Oreos now visible on each of the three plates--almost all of her students are raising their hands to offer the answer to the equation. Some are even raising their voices, trying to get Passi’s attention--however they can--even though she cannot hear the sounds.

What makes this classroom scene unusual isn’t that the teacher is deaf, however; all of the students are deaf, too. What makes it unusual is that everyone in this class can communicate in the same language. And, as Passi and a handful of deaf and hearing Minneapolis-St. Paul-area parents and teachers discovered, that’s not the norm for many deaf students. That is, not until they started the Metro Deaf School.

Forging Ahead

Located in a converted brick warehouse in downtown St. Paul, the Metro Deaf School opened its doors this past fall to its first 16 students. The school can serve kindergartners through 8th graders, although the oldest child currently enrolled is in the 7th grade.

The Metro Deaf School is one of a number of pioneering “charter’’ schools in Minnesota and around the country. But it enjoys a singular distinction: It’s the nation’s first charter school for deaf children.

Although charter schools are public schools, in Minnesota they are legally autonomous from the school districts in which they reside. Instead, they operate under state-approved contracts, or charters, with local school boards. As long as a school meets the outcomes laid out in its charter, school officials are free to hire and fire their own teachers, spend their money as they see fit, design their own curricula, and avail themselves of other freedoms unheard of in most public schools.

The founders of the Metro Deaf School used that leeway to generate a curriculum that they feel is the best way to educate deaf children. In doing so, the school also became one of the few in the country teaching deaf children using a “bilingual, bicultural’’ curriculum, called “bi-bi’’ for short.

The bi-bi approach uses American Sign Language as the language of instruction, and students learn written English as a second language. In addition, bi-bi teaches students about the culture of deafness--a culture with its own history, language, and role models, distinct from hearing culture.

For parents like Scott Haskins, whose son Danny is a 7th grader at the school, the advantages of the Metro Deaf School and its bi-bi curriculum are obvious.

“We’ve seen the development of his self-esteem because he has a language that he can communicate with,’' Haskins says. “Here a child walks through that door and can communicate with every other child. He or she can communicate with everybody who’s a teacher here, or administrator here, because everyone here uses the same language.’' If Danny had stayed in the regular public schools past the 6th grade, Haskins adds, he would have been the only deaf student in a class of hearing children, where he would have few--if any--deaf role models, and no deaf peers.

Making History

Bi-bi proponents trace the approach’s roots to the 19th century. Early American deaf-education philosophy extolled the use of sign languages like American Sign Language, which has its own grammar, syntax, and idiom. Toward the end of the last century, however, oralism--an approach that tries to teach students to function like hearing people through lip reading and speech instruction--gained prominence.

More recently, many educators have turned to “total communication.’' This approach emphasizes English as the student’s primary language. Total-communication programs teach children in a combination of speech, lip reading, and signed English, a sign system that uses English word order. While some support total communication as an effective tool for teaching deaf children to communicate in English, others argue that the approach gives deaf children no real language at all.

It was out of this controversy that the bi-bi approach emerged. Despite arguments on both sides of the deaf-education debate, bi-bi curriculum is gaining increased currency within the deaf community.

Because of these different forms of deaf education, Metro Deaf students have brought with them a range of communications experiences. Most of the younger children have had only American Sign Language instruction, but some of the older students have learned oral skills or the sign-supported English of total communication at their previous schools. Although the emphasis at the school is on American Sign Language, some students have additional speech classes as part of their individualized education programs.

Passi first experimented with bi-bi curriculum as a teacher at a St. Paul public elementary school. For Danny Haskins, who was one of her students at the time, the experiment was a success. At the end of the 4th grade, Danny could read only at the kindergarten level. By the end of the 5th grade, after one year of bi-bi, Danny’s reading ability had jumped four levels.

“Every kid, at the end of that first year, raised his or her reading level two to four grade levels,’' Scott Haskins says. “He was in the same school building, same group of kids, had the same teachers in previous years, and the only thing that was changed is that he was taught using A.S.L.’'

It was this success, combined with additional research on deaf education, that prompted Haskins and other concerned parents to look for a school that taught deaf students using bi-bi. But they didn’t find one. Even the state-run school for the deaf in Faribault, Minn., which serves about a tenth of the state’s deaf student population, wasn’t primarily using American Sign Language at the time.

In the meantime, Passi was grappling with her own frustrations. “At my old school, I was the only deaf teacher, and I felt that my opinion was never important really,’' Passi says through an interpreter. “I would often propose different changes that might happen in the curriculum, but I was never taken seriously.’'

At the Metro Deaf School, where two of the three teachers are deaf, Passi has helped create a school where her concerns are heard. And parents like Haskins have also found what they were looking for in the school’s commitment to bi-bi curriculum.

“Really, to be bi-bi, the whole school needs to be involved in that approach,’' says Roberta (Bobbi) Cordano, the president of the school’s board of directors. “You can’t just have one deaf teacher and say that teacher doesn’t speak in class, and that’s bi-bi. That’s one class. Bi-bi is really designed to be a programmatic, schoolwide approach, not an individual-classroom type of thing.’'

Teaching Pride

But the bi-bi approach goes beyond simply promoting A.S.L. as a common means of communication. Amy Hile, who teaches the deaf-studies curriculum at the Metro Deaf School, also strives to instill in students a sense of deaf pride. The curriculum, which was developed by deaf educators at Gallaudet University in Washington, is made up of six elements: identity, American deaf culture, American Sign Language, communications, history, and social change.

In the social-change section, for example, students learn about their rights as deaf people.

“They will learn about their legal rights and the political process so that they can continue the struggle for equal rights for all deaf citizens,’' the curriculum guide reads. “They will study the ‘Deaf President Now’ movement at Gallaudet and discuss its impact on people around the world.’'

Hile was a student at Gallaudet, probably the nation’s best-known institution of higher education for the deaf, during the 1988 Deaf President Now movement. That effort brought I. King Jordan into office as the school’s first deaf president and brought deaf issues--specifically the need for deaf role models and deaf pride--into mainstream hearing people’s consciousness. Posters saluting the Gallaudet movement and others promoting deaf pride and deaf culture cover the classroom walls at the Metro Deaf School, next to the Civil War time lines and cursive guides that might be found in any school.

“I think that, if children get this at a young age, they’re very lucky,’' Hile says of the deaf-studies curriculum, “as compared to most of us deaf people who haven’t got such information until they’ve hit maybe a college level.’'

Cordano of the school board says the school is trying to give its students a sense of self-esteem and of identity--tools that will allow them to succeed in any situation. “You know, we don’t teach hearing kids how to deal with the hearing world,’' she says. “You give them the skills they need to be healthy, well-developed adults. If we do the same with the deaf kids, they, too, will become healthy, well-adjusted adults.’'

Overcoming Obstacles

While the Metro Deaf School seeks to give students the education that communications barriers have denied many deaf students in the past, its founders have run into several barriers of their own.

Just getting students to school, for example, has taken some doing. District special-education administrators have placed most of the students at the school because they considered it the most appropriate, least restrictive learning environment available to them. But parents of the remaining students--those not deemed to need the special facilities offered at the school--had to exercise “parental choice’’ to avoid lengthy court proceedings to change the district’s placement. The district will still pay for these students’ tuition, but not their transportation. That leaves the parents footing the bill for the outstanding transportation costs.

Money has been a sticking point in other areas as well. Although most of the districts sending children to the Metro Deaf School have been paying the school on time, a few have not been as forthcoming. Two are refusing to pay altogether, while another has delayed payment. All told, the delinquent districts owe the school some $15,000--about 1 times its biweekly payroll.

“I think what we’re finding is that there needs to be more clarity in the rules and legislation,’' says Kristin Stolte, the school’s business manager. “There are a few districts that are looking deeply into the words and saying, ‘Well, charter schools aren’t mentioned here, so I don’t need to pay.’''

Thus far, the Metro Deaf School has managed to get around its financial woes and meet its operating costs--in part by taking out a loan, at an interest rate of 11 percent. But the founders of the new charter school don’t let these growing pains overshadow their hopes for future development.

Stolte says they’re expecting twice as many students to enroll next year. In fact, they’re already looking for a bigger space. In addition, this legislative session may yield state transportation aid for charter schools, according to Peggy Hunter, the state administrator who, until recently, was the point person for charter schools within the state education department. Cordano and Stolte are also hoping the legislature will address other technical problems impeding the school’s business workings.

What Metro Deaf parents, teachers, and administrators are asking for most of all is the time to see if their school can work--without the constraints of the funding problems that have plagued it so far.

“It would be really nice if other people didn’t put roadblocks in our way,’' Haskins says. “If we’re going to fail, let us fail.’'

A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 1994 edition of Education Week as A Show of Hands