‘Sign’ of the Times
Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students Thrive Thanks to A.C.E. Program and Sign Language Club

Learning can sometimes be challenging—even in the best of circumstances. If you’re a student unable to hear what’s being taught, learning can be much more difficult.

Just ask Tifeoluwa Akande.

Akande is a senior at Clarkston High School, who routinely struggled with reading. Now, as a member of a close-knit community of deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) who participates in the school’s Deaf A.C.E (Angoras Committed to Excellence) Program, she’s developed into a more accomplished student.

Akande even sees her classmates working harder to communicate better with DHH students.

“I noticed before that a lot of students couldn’t understand me, and now they’re willing to help me in class,” she said.

Since the 1980s, the school has hosted DHH-related activities and programs for students but did not have a club for DHH students to connect to until the Deaf A.C.E Program began in 2013, according to Deaf Learning Specialist Ms. Kristi Merriweather, who is deaf.

“I wanted to give deaf and hard of hearing students a way to find a connection with those outside the deaf world, Ms. Merriweather said through an interpreter. “I wanted them to learn independent skills. I wanted them to have fun activities to socialize together.”

The program’s mission is to promote the values of academic excellence and high expectations within deaf students, expose deaf students to a variety of experiences and deaf community resources, cultivate a positive identity and knowledge of deaf culture and history, increase student performance, and instill a sense of camaraderie and positive social memories among deaf students.

Additionally, the school partners with the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency, which comes out once a week to work with A.C.E students on job skills, college preparation, assistive technology resources, and more.

“The program has really helped us prepare for college and helped us with other stuff, too,” said senior Ronald Byard, who has been in this effort for six years. “The progress monitoring is really helpful, as well.”

Being in Deaf A.C.E has also helped Akande with her American Sign Language (ASL) skills, which has led to an increased love for expressing herself through sign language. Ms. Merriweather said some of her deaf students didn’t know sign language, and now they confidently use their skills in the general education classrooms with interpreters.

“ASL can serve as a bridge to English, to terms and words that they don’t understand,” Ms. Merriweather said.

This is one example of many success stories and resources available to DHH students as DCSD celebrates Deaf Awareness Month, which helps raise awareness about the language, culture, and diversity of the deaf community across our nation. Many of our DHH students are educated and find support at Clarkston High School, Freedom Middle School, and Briarlake Elementary School.

While the District provides interpreters to students in need at any school, Clarkston High goes above and beyond to ensure its DHH students excel academically and socially through the Deaf A.C.E Program and by communicating with their classmates through the Gifted Hands Sign Language Club.

Deaf A.C.E and the Gifted Hands Sign Language Club also bridge the communication gap between DHH and hearing students. Gifted Hands Sign Language Club, started by Ms. Alexa Wilson four years ago, allows hearing students to learn basic sign language skills to communicate with their DHH classmates and those in the general population. Ms. Wilson has been using sign language since she was 12 years old.

“Our deaf students expressed the need [for a sign language club] because they feel like they are alone and there aren’t a lot of kids who can sign,” Ms. Wilson said. “They need that opportunity to have peers their age to feel independent and feel like they can talk to somebody besides the interpreter all day long.”

Communicating with her DHH classmates was why senior Loan Nguyen joined the Gifted Hands Sign Language Club.

“I had an interest in this since I was in middle school because I have a lot of deaf friends, and I wanted to communicate with them,” she said. “But because of that language barrier, I couldn’t, and that’s why I joined the club.”

This was also the motivation for junior Jerni Curry, whose younger brother is deaf.

“When I came to Clarkston from a different school and saw that there were a lot of deaf students and interpreters in almost all of my classes, I thought learning sign language would help me communicate with him and my classmates,” she said.

Wilson is also helping teachers learn sign language to communicate better with DHH students. During the 2015-2016 school year, Ms. Merriweather petitioned the DeKalb County Board of Education to add the ASL curriculum. She got over 200 signatures from students to show the demand for the ASL curriculum.

“It took a few years, but the Board approved it,” she said.