Dallas ISD’s deaf education program makes it possible for hearing-impaired students to thrive
By Emily Toman
April 24, 2015
Jakkisha Smith can’t hear the ball move up and down the court. She can’t hear it bounce off the backboard and swoosh into the net. She can’t hear her coach shout the next play from the sideline. And yet she knows exactly what to do.
The junior shooting guard has become one of Woodrow Wilson High School’s star basketball players. She’s also completely deaf.
She’s one of the many hearing-impaired students who attend Woodrow in the same classrooms as everyone else. It’s one of nine campuses within Dallas ISD’s Regional School for the Deaf, feeding through J.L. Long Middle School and Stonewall Jackson Elementary where the program originated. It serves 620 hearing-impaired students from across North Texas, most of whom attend class in an inclusive setting with hearing children, following the same curriculum and classroom structure as the general student body with accommodations such as an interpreter or a deaf education teacher. The district also has smaller, self-contained settings composed of hearing-impaired students who have other disabilities.
“We pride ourselves on providing equal access to everything that a general education student has,” says program director Arlene Stein.
The program also enriches the experience of hearing students who learn how to communicate with sign language and form lasting friendships with their deaf classmates from Stonewall to Woodrow. Chris Peters, chair of the site-based decision making committee at Stonewall, has had three children in inclusive classrooms.
“The exposure to kids with impairements opens their eyes at an early age,” Peters says. “That’s what’s so special about having this program at Stonewall.”
The deaf education program also extends to extra-curricular activities. Every student must have a facilitator present to attend events. If one is not available, the student misses out. Unlike smaller deaf education programs in the suburbs, DISD has the staff and resources to ensure that students can experience enrichment outside the classroom.
“They don’t do it like Dallas does,” says lead interpreter Donna Murphy.
She coordinates accommodations for the deaf education program and herself recently accompanied a student to a track meet when no one else could. Plus, interpreters often form close relationships with students, she says.
For many deaf students these school activities are the their main outlets for communication.
“Many of their parents don’t sign, and their neighbors don’t sign,” Murphy says. “The teachers and interpreters are like family.”
Within DISD’s Regional School for the Deaf, there are 66 students enrolled at Woodrow, 48 at Long and 27 at Stonewall. Graduating classes are much smaller and vary each year depending on the student’s individualized plan. For some, that means simply finding a job and becoming independent from their parents.
Deaf education supervisor Pat Robertson says many hearing-impaired children spend the first crucial years of their lives never communicating, stunting their development in the long term.
“Their language is always going to be behind,” Robertson says.
Some students spend more than four years in high school; they can remain in the program until age 22.
Then there are rare students like Jakkisha, who competes right alongside other athletes on the girls basketball team and is on track to attend college. She just happens to be deaf.
“I’ve never really felt different,” she signs through her interpreter, Elisa Singleton.
That’s because her entire family is deaf, including her brother and two sisters.
“She’s been communicating since the day she was born,” Robertson says.
Jakkisha is finishing her junior year at Woodrow and has visited with representatives from Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., the world’s only university designed for deaf and hard of hearing students. But she has decided she wants to play basketball for a small division 1 school in Texas and stay closer to her family who inspired her from the beginning.
“I can’t imagine not having basketball in my life,” she says.
Jakkisha’s mother taught her how to play at 5 years old.
“She knew how to coach me,” Jakkish says. “I don’t even like to play basketball if my mom isn’t there.”
This year Jakkisha is one of the top players among 5A schools with 834 points and 240 rebounds in 32 games.
“This year she stood out a lot more,” says her coach Adrian Martinez.
He says things move quickly on the court, leaving little time to communicate plays through interpreters, so Jakkisha has had to adapt. She can read lips, and some of her teammates have learned a few words in sign language.
Martinez has a deaf brother, so he’s sensitive to Jakkisha’s experience but, “at the same time, I try to treat her like the other kids.”
Although Jakkisha can’t hear any of the action on the court, her motivation is the same as the rest of her team.
“I just really want to win,” she says.