Principal Defends "Inclusion" Method of Teaching Deaf Kids

A small circle of eager 4-year-olds gathers on the floor of the Baby Boomers International Preschool classroom in Pompano Beach, watching their teacher explain how to write the date "Thursday, March 4, 2010" on a paper easel.

The children sit in a room filled with toys and puzzles and their artwork on the walls. A rug displays the alphabet in English and American Sign Language.

The teacher, Alla Polich, is signing as she speaks. Little hands wave wildly to get

her attention. She high-fives the children when they write their names correctly on the easel. An aide, a deaf man who is new to Baby Boomers, sits across from Polich, signing and rewarding the kids with huge grins.

Yet just a few days ago, the mother of one of the children in the class complained to the Juice that her son wasn't learning anything at Baby Boomers -- a private preschool contracted by the Broward County School District to teach deaf children -- because Polich isn't fluent in American Sign Language (ASL).

Now the principal of Baby Boomers, Julia Musella, has arranged this tour. She wants a reporter to see that her teachers -- while they are not deaf or necessarily fluent in sign language -- do sign with the children, including the kids who can hear.

Because Baby Boomers teaches both hearing and nonhearing students in the same classroom, they use a mix of English, signed English, and  ASL to communicate, Musella explains. There is also a deaf aide available to translate for the children who can't hear.

"There's many spectrums we have to serve," Musella says. "We can't just do ASL."

Housed in a converted historic house, Baby Boomers is set up to make the children feel at home. They plant flowers and ride tricycles outside, paint block in art class, learn about cooking and cleaning up in the kitchen. And they learn a tremendous amount from one another, Musella says.

There's a heated debate about whether deaf children learn better if they are taught primarily in ASL -- which has its own grammatical structure and is integral to deaf culture -- or in a mix of signing and English. Some advocates for the deaf worry that learning a mix of English and sign language is like learning Spanglish -- it's confusing, and the children don't learn proper grammar.

Others say teaching deaf kids signed English -- a more exact translation of English to signs -- helps them learn English.

But Musella says she's not taking sides. She's just trying to accommodate children of all stripes.

"I have to think of everyone here," she says. "It's about complete inclusion."

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