Kelsey Ensign, 6, and Cameron Draper, 7, seem like average fun-loving first-graders. But these bright-eyed kids talk with their hands.
American Sign Language is their first language and English is their second, explained their teacher Mercy Persinger, who, like Kelsey and Cameron, was born deaf.
Teachers and their students from the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind visited Capitol Hill on Thursday to show legislators what state funding is doing for the institution that serves deaf, hard of hearing, blind, deaf-blind and visually impaired children.
Utah is one of the few states that provides services to impaired children throughout the state, said school spokeswoman Susan Thomas. The school’s budget this year is about $35 million and is largely dependent on state funding.
Teaching deaf kids language is the first and most important task, Persinger said. Children who can hear begin taking in language at birth. The concept is much different for deaf children, who must learn language in a completely different way. Once they learn to sign, she explained, they can start to attach English words and phrases to those signs.
Students at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind follow the state’s school core curriculum. Of course, instruction has to be modified to fit students’ needs. The school also teaches them how to live in a world populated by people who see and hear.
Kelsey likes journaling. “Because I enjoy being creative and artistic,” she said in sign language.
Cameron likes math, he said, “because I like learning addition and subtraction.” The first-grader also loves playing basketball at recess.
Blind and deaf students are taught in separate classrooms because their needs vary so greatly, said Kate Borg, director of the Blind Campus.
For example, sight-challenged kids, like sixth-grader Ellie Mckinlay, must learn braille before they can read.
“I like to read lots of books,” she said. “I like ‘The Chronicles of Narnia.’ But I don’t have a favorite. I like all books.”
Blind kids also must learn how to get around and are trained in orientation and mobility, Borg said. The students also are instructed in such things as social skills and self-determination.
There are some 1,760 students who receive training and education from the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind. The school includes campuses in Ogden and Salt Lake.
Provo’s school is spread throughout the community. Those facilities will be replaced with a single campus in Springville in fall 2019, said Carolyn Lasater, the associate superintendent of the blind school.
Students who live in more distant locales get training from traveling educators, Lasater said.
Most important is that each student gets a personalized curriculum through the school’s “individualized education plan,” Lasater explained. Each year a team of educators evaluates each student and sets out a personalized study plan.
Utah has a long history of educating the deaf and the blind, going back to the 1880s. The two schools merged in 1991.