ASL advocates cheered a new bilingual program in LA. But its rollout has been rocky
The Los Angeles Unified School District board passed a controversial resolution in May that places deaf and hard of hearing children in a bilingual American Sign Language and English program. But several months into the school year, the policy's implementation is riddled with confusion from some faculty and alleged resistance from those who are tasked with implementing the program.
At the center of the controversy is a debate that dates back decades about whether young deaf and hard of hearing children should be taught sign language or completely focus on speech skills.
The new policy makes the bilingual program the default offering for all deaf and hard of hearing children ages 0 to 3, prompting backlash from some parents who believe the way parents navigate their child's education should be a personal decision. They say they don't want to feel pressured by a default offering that would have their child learn sign language, even if they have an option to opt out.
But supporters of the policy see it as a way to correct what they see as longtime anti-ASL bias. They've called for equal access to both spoken and sign language, saying that depriving students of ASL limits their language development and cuts them off from a major source of Deaf culture.
While bilingual programs already exist for deaf students in the U.S., this is the largest public school district in the country to attempt to roll one out as a default offering for deaf and hard of hearing kids, according to Gallaudet University President Roberta J. Cordano. LAUSD is the second largest school district by enrollment in the U.S.
Some deaf and hard of hearing faculty feel left in the dark
Months into the school year, it is not clear to what extent the bilingual curriculum has actually been implemented. The district did not respond to questions from NPR about the number of children currently in the program, whether some parents opted their child out, or who is teaching the curriculum.
An LAUSD spokesperson told NPR over email that the district's Division of Special Education is "working with Local Districts to provide access to the adopted curriculum for all families." It said that the district is working with deaf and hard of hearing partners "to roll out the resolution and will ensure families receive the necessary support," without providing specifics.
The LAUSD special education division is tasked with implementing the program. But some high-profile supporters of the program believe it is facing internal resistance.
"We have some people who have been in the special education department in our district for a very long time and who don't believe that [a bilingual program will benefit deaf and hard of hearing kids]," said LAUSD board member Jackie Goldberg, who penned the resolution and met with these administrators earlier this year.
The LAUSD spokesperson said that the bilingual program is a "critical initiative to the Division of Special Education and they have been steadfastly working to ensure this program meets the needs of Los Angeles Unified students."
NPR spoke to a group of LAUSD professionals focused on deaf and hard of hearing students who say they feel left in the dark about the plans for this program. Two of them are deaf themselves, including the assistant principal of the district's only day school for the deaf, and one is an audiologist who works with deaf and hard of hearing kids.
They said they were not contacted about how to get involved, even though a committee of deaf and hard of hearing people is supposed to advise the district on how to implement the program. The LAUSD spokesperson did not provide specifics about whether the advisory committee was being formed.
The district also plans to expand ASL offerings in high schools and establish a deaf and hard of hearing education department within the special education division to streamline programming. A budget plan that details how to implement the bilingual program and these other initiatives is expected to be announced in the near future, according to the professionals focused on deaf and hard of hearing students. But they added that they don't know of any deaf faculty involved in making this plan.
"Who will guide and make those determinations [on the budget plan]? We're not at the table," Lauren Maucere, the assistant principal of Marlton School for deaf and hard of hearing students, said through an interpreter. "We would like to be a part of the conversation in the rollout of the resolution and that includes meeting with the superintendent, ourselves."
Spoken versus sign language is a decades-old debate
Advocates for sign language say it has been suppressed for decades.
The Milan Conference in 1880 declared that oral education was superior to sign education, saying that focusing on English would help deaf and hard of hearing people integrate properly into hearing society. The effects of that declaration can be seen to this day, said Wyatte Hall, a professor at the University of Rochester who studies early childhood language experiences in Deaf communities.
"In many ways, Deaf communities still suffer the consequences of that vote in 1880," he said through an interpreter. "It's entrenched in the medical system and in the educational system."
Opponents of teaching ASL to deaf students say it could negatively impact their ability to learn spoken language, isolate them from hearing people, and make them less likely to succeed.
Hall disagrees. "There's no research that signed languages in any way interferes with the ability to use whatever residual hearing — whether with technology or without, or with spoken language development," Hall said. "But it's a very strong belief. What we are talking about is a belief, not evidence-based practices."
Deaf and hard of hearing children suffer if they are denied access to sign language during the critical exposure period when babies can learn language most effectively, Hall added.
"The end result of denying deaf kids visual language has life-long outcomes," he said. "All kinds of developmental areas are affected, everyday functioning is affected, and we especially see that cumulative effect in the deaf mental health system."
And advocates for the bilingual program say that technologies like cochlear implants do not provide perfect hearing abilities and should not be seen as a substitute for sign language.
"Even with a cochlear implant, they are still deaf and they need to be able to communicate with deaf people and hearing people," Allison Jeppsen, a mother with a child who uses implants, wrote on the change.org petition in support of the resolution. "By doing this, they are given the ability to choose how they would like to continue communicating and which form of communication(s) they want to continue."
Hall also says that "what we see often is deaf people who grow up with sign language have more tools to successfully navigate the hearing world than kids who don't."
Still, some parents are strongly against their children learning ASL, even when offered in the form of an optional program. For example, Leslie Butchko, whose son is deaf, wrote in a letter to the LAUSD superintendent and board members that she and her husband wanted their son to be in classes with hearing students so he could "concentrate solely on oral communication."
She said she fears taking him out of regular classes could lead to ostracism or even bullying. "We wanted John to succeed academically and socially and felt it was important that he walk to school with his older, hearing brother and be in classes with children from the neighborhood who he could play with after school," she wrote in the letter, which was provided to NPR by John Tracy Center, a LA-based organization that promotes speech education for deaf and hard of hearing kids. It opposed the bilingual initiative.
While the bilingual program could help broaden access to ASL, Janette Durán-Aguirre, a school counselor at Marlton School, said she believes the district's special education administrators are perpetuating the narrative that sign language is inferior.
"We can't heal from this past trauma [of the suppression of ASL, Deaf students and Deaf professionals] or establish this Deaf Education department if the people that caused the harm and the people who opposed the resolution are the ones in administrative leadership roles guiding this new implementation," Durán-Aguirre said through an interpreter. "How do we expect this to actually progress authentically when the same individuals that are assigned to this new change are the same people who caused this harm?"
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