The Florida School for the Deaf and Blind will implement new bilingual-bicultural teaching methods in its deaf departments beginning Monday.
Jeanne Prickett, the FSDB president, said under the “bi-bi” philosophy, students will be taught exclusively in American Sign Language while learning to read and write in English. In previous years, the campus instituted simultaneous communication or “simm-comm” methods, which allowed teachers and staff to speak while signing.
But parents were concerned simm-comm inhibited deaf students’ ability to learn because of its shorthand communication style. In a month-long protest at the end of last school year, parents and students claimed speech on campus and in classrooms marginalized effective communication and created bias between those who could and couldn’t hear.
Of several demands made by parents during their audism rally, transitioning to bi-bi teaching methods as well as increasing staff ASL knowledge were top priorities.
Prickett said although FSDB is doing its best to immediately meet those demands, the change requires time and patience. Although the vast majority of students will learn directly from ASL signing in classrooms this year, there is still a percentage of children who need and use spoken English.
“Some students have 20-decibel hearing loss, so basically they’re considered hard-of-hearing,” Prickett said. “Their family members might not know ASL and so they rely on speech to communicate.”
Around 70 percent of students at FSDB have profound hearing loss, while 22 percent are functionally hard-of-hearing. While some children rely entirely on ASL, others require a combination of lip reading and signing.
“It’s different for every school for deaf children because there are so many different profiles,” Prickett said.
Last week, parents, teachers and administrators met for a series of seminars explaining the bi-bi transition and how it will affect the upcoming school year. Several researchers and professors from national deaf schools provided advice to staff members on finding the best bi-bi methods to meet students’ individual learning needs.
“We have a greater variety of learning needs in our student body,” Prickett said. “What we’re doing is starting from scratch and making our own modification of what’s been done in other schools successfully.”
Tracie Snow, the administrator for instructional services, said the school hired two new specialists to aid the process.
“We have a bilingual specialist whose job is to work with the teachers in understanding the linguistics of both languages and how to administer them to children with the best practices and research,” Snow said. “And we have an ASL teacher who will be in the classroom to work with students to improve their sign language skills.”
Snow said 42 out of 120 academic staff members, or 35 percent, are deaf or hard-of-hearing. Fifty percent of this year’s new hires are also deaf or hard-of-hearing.
The school hopes increasing the number of deaf staff members will help new students reach proficient ASL levels in a shorter amount of time.
Although ASL will be recognized as the language of conversation and instruction, Snow said students needing or wanting the speech aspect will still receive it.
“Our goal is to have every student gain a strong foundation in ASL and a strong foundation in written English, read or written,” Snow said. “And for those who have the capability of spoken language to have that as well.”
Prickett added that additional ASL classes and interpreters will be available to staff and students throughout the year.
“We know that it's a process that won't happen overnight, as impatient as we might be,” Prickett said. “But we're going to find our way to a balance so everyone gets the information they need in the form they receive it best.”