Manoa school first to offer sign language credit
By Jennifer Hiller
Advertiser Education Writer
Samantha Kuwata, 15, admits that she first enrolled in American Sign Language because she thought it had to be easier than learning Japanese.
Two years later, Kuwata isn't so sure.
But she's proud that she is among the first hearing students in the state all attending Saint Francis School in Manoa to learn American Sign Language.
While public schools have programs geared toward deaf students and some public or private schools have American Sign Language clubs where students learn signing informally, Saint Francis is the only public or private school in the state to offer ASL as a foreign language, said Charlotte Townsend with the state Disability and Communication Access Board.
Saint Francis School, which covers grades six through 12, started the program in 1999 as a way to bring a different kind of foreign language credit to students and with the hope that some of its graduates would go on to become sign language interpreters, which are in short supply in Hawai'i.
Teacher Kristine Hayashi Pagano, who was born deaf but can hear a little in her right ear, has been at the private girls' school for four years. She designed the program herself because there were no other models to copy.
She based the curriculum on college coursework, researched different textbooks, talked to professors around the country and asked everyone she knew in the deaf community for advice. "Ask, ask, ask, ask, ask," she signed.
Her program has grown rapidly. Kuwata was among 80 students at Saint Francis School this year learning ASL.
"It's not as easy as I thought," Kuwata said. "It's a totally different language."
Courtney Shimabuku, 15, a sophomore who will start her fourth year of ASL in the fall, said the structure of ASL is different than English. Instead of, "Where are you going?" ASL constructs the sentence as "You go where?"
Shimabuku has been teaching her mom and her friends how to sign. "It's something different than Japanese or Spanish and it came out to be a good experience," she said.
Sister Joan of Arc Souza, principal of Saint Francis School, said students and faculty are getting valuable exposure to deaf culture. They know to face Hayashi Pagano when they speak so she can read their lips. Now the morning announcements go out via e-mail, not over the intercom system.
Souza knew her students were catching on when she saw them applaud Hayashi Pagano's performance at a school assembly.
Instead of clapping, hundreds of students silently waved their hands in the air to congratulate the sign for applause.
"It has raised our level of awareness in working with a person who is deaf," Souza said.
Before offering the class, the school checked with local and Mainland universities to make sure sign language classes would be accepted as foreign language credits. Many colleges require at least two years of a foreign language for entry.
"We're a small private school," Souza said. "We can't speak to every disability, but we can address a few."
The school works with dyslexic students and accepts English as a Second Language students from Japan and Korea, but wanted to add to its program.
"We want a whole group of students who are both hearing and signing," Souza said. "Evidently there's a big need in Hawai'i. These girls will be out there and be able to communicate."
The highlight of Kuwata's classroom experience happened in the aisles of a Longs Drug store. A deaf couple spotted her signing with a friend and came over to have a conversation.
"That was cool," she said.
Exposing students to deaf culture has been a highlight for Hayashi Pagano.
"I try to educate people that they have to be patient with the deaf, be patient with their spoken language," she said. "Deaf people may not talk right, but it is important for them to try. Communication is so hard for the deaf."
Hayashi Pagano, a graduate of 'Aiea High School and the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, began learning to speak and lip read at age 6, but doesn't let her students lean on those abilities. "I can talk, but for the student who learns ASL and about the deaf culture, my voice is turned off," she signed as her students interpreted.
Even in her first semester on the campus, when none of her students knew so much as how to spell their names in ASL, Hayashi Pagano communicated with her hands or wrote what she needed to say. She started with the basics: simple signs, the alphabet and numbers.
"The students picked it up really fast," she said. "The students are nice. They're not hard to teach. I enjoy teaching to see the growth of how they learn signing. I want to encourage young women to be interpreters, counselors and teacher for the deaf."
Although Hayashi Pagano is leaving Saint Francis to earn her master's degree, the school will continue the ASL program.
Hayashi Pagano will attend UH-Manoa, where she plans to go through a one-year program to receive a certificate in public administration. She then plans to pursue a master's degree either in public administration or in rehabilitation counseling. There are no deaf rehabilitation counselors in the state, she said.
"It was hard to let go," Hayashi Pagano said. "I'm going to miss my students. I won't be here to teach, but in spirit I will be here."
Emilia Daquioag will take over as the school's new ASL teacher in the fall.
Kuwata said that after learning sign language and getting to know her teacher, she wishes that more hearing people knew at least basic signs so they could communicate with the deaf community. For example, she notices the limited availability of closed captioning in movie theaters.
"Before this I didn't know what deaf people have to go through," Kuwata said. "I give my teacher a lot of credit. I wish more hearing schools and public schools would accept ASL as a foreign language."
Reach Jennifer Hiller at firstname.lastname@example.org or 525-8084.