Five minutes before dismissal time for the day, and down in the school’s main hall it’s the usual scene of barely contained adolescent energies.
Over in one corner, two 12-year-old boys are doing their playful best to wrestle each other the floor. A large group of teenage girls is involved in animated discussion of whatever drama-laden situation is currently on their minds. Some students are checking their cell phones, and a few are getting a head start on their homework.
A visitor to the school is struck by one thing only. Instead of the usual earsplitting screech associated with young teenagers about to be released from the confines of the school day, the background noise is surprisingly moderate—a pleasant hum rather than a barely contained roar.
No surprise there. This is a bilingual school, and the students—who come from a rich variety of ethnic and linguistic backgrounds—are relaxing in their native language: American Sign Language (ASL).
In a brightly painted building hung with student art at 1471 Brewster St. in Como Park, the Metro Deaf School educates nearly 100 students from pre-kindergarten through high school. A public charter school established in 1992, the Metro Deaf School has attracted students from some 35 different school districts. Families have moved to Minnesota to take advantage of the excellent education it offers to deaf and hard-of-hearing students; other families merely send their children to the school from as far away as Wisconsin and St. Cloud.
“We don’t see our students as disabled,” says Executive Director Susan Lane-Outlaw. “We look for their potential. Deaf people are ‘People of the Eye’ with a different way of processing information. Their potential is limitless.”
Still, she believes that the nurturing her students receive at a school where everyone can sign and 70 percent of the staff are themselves hard-of-hearing or deaf is vital to their eventual success.
“Here their social and emotional needs are also met. The school is more like a family,” Lane-Outlaw says. “They can grow up here.”
The school uses ASL as the child’s first language of instruction, while gradually introducing English as a foreign language. “ASL is the mother tongue,” says Lane-Outlaw, “but we never withhold English because that’s the language of power in America.”
There are sound developmental reasons for introducing ASL as early as possible in the child’s life, she explains. “The critical period of language development is so early in life,” she says. Just as hearing persons can never develop native proficiency in a language unless they learn it at an early age, deaf children should learn ASL as early as possible to achieve fluency.
“Research shows that the more proficient as student is in ASL, the more proficient they are in reading and writing English,” she says.
It can be a huge challenge for families, since most deaf children are born to hearing parents who have had no prior opportunity to learn ASL. The stress is compounded for what Lane-Outlaw calls “new-in-country” students—deaf children born overseas to hearing families who are themselves struggling with the adjustment to American life and the English language.
“Sometimes these children [arrive] with gestures but no formal language of any type,” she says.
Lane-Outlaw recalls the arrival of a “new-to-country family with three deaf children who had no formal language. Two years later, they’re fluent in ASL, reading and writing, flourishing. And the family is now part of our community,” she says.
She is proud of the diversity of the school’s student body, and she wants to make it clear that their unifying language, American Sign, is not simply a variation of spoken English with added gestures. Actually ASL has its own distinct syntax and grammar.
“ASL is a concept,” says Lane-Outlaw. “It’s not English.” In fact, ASL was originally developed in the early 19th century by Frenchman Laurent Clerc, which leads to an interesting side benefit for its users two centuries later.
“I know no French at all,” says Lane-Outlaw, “but I can talk in basic sign language with French people who can sign.”
Lane-Outlaw is eager to talk about what her students accomplish after they graduate.
“If you give students the foundations at an early age, then they have the skills to move on,” she says, and Metro Deaf School students often move on to mainstream colleges where, thanks to the presence of interpreters and other assistance, they can learn and succeed. Alumni have gone on to productive work and fulfilling lives. The rise of internet-based communications, smartphones and sophisticated adaptive devices means that many of the school’s graduates are able to work in hearing environments.
“We want our students to learn to give back. They’re not just here to take,” says Lane-Outlaw.
She knows, however, that public perception hasn’t always kept up with the enlarged potential of deaf people. Because her spouse is deaf, Lane-Outlaw uses sign language in the family. She tells of an incident when her family, including their young daughter, was using ASL while having dinner at a restaurant. A well-meaning but misguided stranger “came up and gave us a dollar for our kid. Society feels sorry for [the deaf] . . . and encourages a kind of learned helplessness,” she says.
Lane-Outlaw chooses to combat such misconceptions by getting the word out. “We have an alumna doing research at the National Institute of Health,” she says. “Other students are now getting PhDs. We’re looking for a paradigm shift in the greater society once you know that our students can offer so much.”
Meanwhile, down the hall while waiting to be dismissed, the kids have more immediate things on their mind. Speaking to a visitor through an interpreter, 4-year-old Suraiya explains that after school, she’s going to tell her dad about “snack.” (She liked it.) Her fellow pre-K student Henry says, “The coolest thing about school is the bus!”
Carter, 12, has a more nuanced appreciation of his school. “I like activities, math and science. And I wish we had more computers.”
Kou, 15, likes his school because, “Everybody’s deaf and I communicate with all my friends. There are no barriers and if we go out; we learn together how to function in the hearing world.”
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Interested in learning ASL? The Metro Deaf School offers classes for adults and children over 10 on Tuesday evenings at a modest cost. For more information visit the school’s website, mdsmn.org/community/asl-classes/, or contact Becky Swinney at 651-224-3995.
When she’s not writing about community news, Judy Woodward spends her time as a reference librarian at the Roseville Library.