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Winfield Elementary students aligning with learning sign language skills

By Ali Schmitz, Staff Writer
KENNY KEMP | Putnam Review
Winfield Elementary School students Lela Simpkins, Alesha Saunders, Vickie Dye, Jonathan Alderman and Katie Toney discuss what changes could be made after a run-through of the announcements.
KENNY KEMP | Putnam Review Lela Simpkins, Alesha Saunders and Jonathan Alderman practice for an upcoming episode of the announcements.

Producing Winfield Elementary’s morning announcements used to be a pretty simple affair. Every fifth-grader was given a chance to read the announcements out loud over the school intercom, holding a phone to his or her ear while reading a script.

That wouldn’t work for Alesha Saunders, a fifth-grader at the school.

She’s deaf. It wouldn’t work with many other non-verbal students at the school who use interpreters to speak English, either.

Winfield’s school counselor, Vickie Dye, who coordinates the announcements program, figured out a work-around -- video announcements from students.

“We thought every kid should have one day, just like other kids,” said Lela Simpkins, a fifth-grader at the school and one of Saunders’ closest friends.

When Simpkins met Saunders two years ago, she decided to learn American Sign Language so they could speak with each other. Teachers and staff members often spot them giggling while signing with each other. Simpkins said learning sign language can be difficult, especially when she and Saunders both don’t know a word.

Dye asked Simpkins to be one of the co-anchors. Jonathan Alderman, another classmate, was also chosen.

They began writing the scripts for the show and making signs for Saunders to hold up so she wouldn’t have to sign often. Instead of clapping or cheering, they shake pompons.

In return, Saunders, Simpkins and Alderman learned the pledge of allegiance in ASL. Saunders said signing the pledge is her favorite part of the announcements.

Saunders is still learning ASL herself. She said while preparing for the announcements she learns new signs and practices them. Since her parents are not deaf, she’ll teach them the signs.

“I like working with all of my friends and showing everybody sign language,” Saunders said.

Dye films the announcements using a tablet and sends them to teachers over a cloud system.

Dye said along the way students and teachers have learned a few lessons about inclusivity. In one show, they spent nearly two minutes teaching teachers and students how to treat deaf students. They encouraged people to not leave deaf students out of conversations, to speak directly to them instead of their interpreter, and to treat them with respect.

“Deaf is the same as hearing and people should treat the deaf the same,” Saunders said.

Winfield Elementary School is a hub for students with exceptionalities, Dye said.

“The kids here accept and understand that it’s OK to be different, and kind of embrace that,” Dye said. “It’s a really unique place to be.”

Katie Toney, the interpreter who works with Saunders, said students and teachers are growing more interested in learning ASL. She goes into other classrooms to show students ASL.

“They’re mesmerized by it,” Toney said. “They want to learn it, and they want to communicate with her.”

Saunders and Toney said younger kids will come up to them to say hi, trying to fingerspell the two-letter word instead of just waving.

Teachers will come up to her, signing “Good morning, Alesha.”

Even if it’s it wrong, Saunders is happy, because they know that they’re trying to communicate with her in the language she uses.

“She’s meeting more people, because more people are signing with her,” Toney said.

Other students are now getting involved, too. Speech teachers are helping other non-verbal students use augmentative devices to read announcements. Dye said other schools throughout the district are also considering doing similar programs.

Dye said from the outside looking in, the morning announcements program and school’s news team may just seem like a fun activity. She said it does much more -- it provides students job skills, gives students the opportunity to learn public speaking skills, builds self-confidence and responsibility.

For Saunders, it’s providing her all of that. But Dye said when Saunders first started attending Winfield, she was nearly silent.

“Now she’s talking all the time. She won’t be quiet.”


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