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Oxnard schools offer instruction in deaf culture,1375,VCS_251_2471560,00.html

By Erinn Hutkin,
The Ventura County Star
December 2, 2003

While working one day at Souplantation restaurant, Daniel Burnette, 16, asked two customers what they wanted to drink.

It is not an unusual part of the job for Burnette, a Rio Mesa High School junior.

But in this case, the customers were deaf. Burnette communicated using American Sign Language he learned in school.

"That was fun," Burnette said. "We actually know how to make a sentence."

ASL is offered at Rio Mesa and Oxnard High schools for dual high school and college foreign language credit, but students and staff members say the course is particularly helpful at Rio Mesa. The school hosts a program for the hard of hearing that places 25 deaf students and seven sign language interpreters in classrooms.

By offering sign language and a program for the hard of hearing, administrators say students understand more about deaf culture and are able to communicate with teens at the school.

"There's always been a strong interest in it (sign language) because of the hearing-impaired program," Principal Ed Phillips said. "It allows a larger portion of students to be able to communicate with the students who are deaf."

The program for the hard of hearing began two decades ago, and sign language has been offered for seven years. Phillips said that last year 100 students signed up for 50 seats in sign language classes.

The course is taught by Durston Winesburg of Oxnard College. During a recent lesson, the classroom was eerily quiet as he reviewed for a test.

Winesburg pointed to the board. He mouthed words. He performed, mime-like, puffing his cheeks and curling his arms and wiggling his finger under his chin to talk about Thanksgiving turkeys.

He taught with actions, with gestures, with everything but his voice.

He formed words by curling his fist and bending and tucking fingers over each other with grace and speed.

Despite being deaf, Winesburg still knew when the room filled with enough teenage chatter to warrant a "shhh" from the teacher.

Winesburg said students may have more chances to practice ASL in the United States than those who take other foreign languages. For instance, each quarter, students attend events for the deaf such as pizza get-togethers where there are no interpreters.

"They will be supportive of deaf people in the community in the future," Winesburg said.

Bonnie Harrison, 16, already used ASL outside school. She recently saw a deaf childhood friend at a funeral, where she interpreted each speaker's words.

By meeting every day, students learn as much in one year as they would in two years of college sign language. High school students typically need two years of foreign language to graduate, but one year of ASL is enough for Rio Mesa students to meet the requirement.

According to the National Association of the Deaf, at least 35 states recognize ASL as a modern language for public schools. There are between 250,000 and 500,000 ASL users in the United States and Canada.

For Harrison, a junior, ASL was easy to learn because it is visual. As she practiced sign language in class wearing one red and one black mitten, she said she likes communicating with deaf friends at school without using notes or interpreters. She also likes learning more than just a new language.

"I like how we get to learn about how it's a culture," she said, "not just English with signs."

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