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Charter school opens ‘a larger world’ with ASL

Teacher Kristin Penner, left, helps Ariana Loy, 9, with math problems at the Albuquerque Sign Language Academy on Monday

Teacher Kristin Penner, left, helps Ariana Loy, 9, with math problems at the Albuquerque Sign Language Academy on Monday. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When Raphael Martinez helped launch the Albuquerque Sign Language Academy six years ago, he wondered if the charter school would take off, but he was driven to try for the sake of his now 12-year-old son Ben, who is deaf and has special needs.

Today, the K-12 academy has 100 children enrolled, a waiting list of 40 and plans to expand to a much larger building at the Sawmill community land trust near Downtown Albuquerque.

The 30,000-square-foot facility would triple the school’s space, allowing it to comfortably serve 200 students and provide amenities such as a fitness center and community garden.

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If financing on the $7 million space comes together on time, groundbreaking would take place in summer 2016, with the school moving in a year later.

Martinez, the academy’s executive director, said he feels hopeful that the project will move forward. About $2 million already is in place for construction, he said, with plans to secure the rest through fundraising and government sources.

“There is a need out there, so everybody here feels a responsibility to push really hard to fill the need that exists,” he said.

Kindergarten and first-grade teacher Therese Garcia helps Haadi Siddiqui with a project during class at the Albuquerque Sign Language Academy on Monday

Kindergarten and first-grade teacher Therese Garcia helps Haadi Siddiqui with a project during class at the Albuquerque Sign Language Academy on Monday. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Unique in the nation, the ASL Academy offers project-based learning to a mix of deaf and hearing children. While only about half of the students are deaf or hard of hearing, all communicate with American Sign Language, with most of the hearing students learning sign to communicate with deaf family members.

“We are not a deaf school; we are a language school,” Martinez explained. “We serve all children.”

This approach has drawn students from around the Albuquerque area, who have filled the school’s current location on Lomas Boulevard to capacity.

The 9,600-square foot building, which is owned by Bernalillo County, is so crowded that classrooms include makeshift dividers so teachers can share them. One room does triple duty, providing space for lunch, classes and physical education.

The business office also is partitioned so it can house nursing staff who help special-needs students with things like diapers and catheters.

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Fourth-grade teacher Anne Silva said that it would be wonderful to have a new building.

“Throughout the day, you will see teachers who have to move their computers in and out of different rooms,” she said. “Our vision is having space for all of these activities and not stepping on each others’ toes and overlapping.”

Despite the cramped quarters, Silva said she loves working at the ASL Academy because it helps deaf kids become more connected to their families.

Historically, she said, deaf children would attend special schools to study sign language, but the rest of the family may not learn it.

“I had friends who grew up this way, and they would come home on the weekends and be isolated in their own homes,” she said.

When deaf and hearing siblings attend the school together, Silva said, they can all communicate comfortably in sign language.

“That is such a gift for these families,” she said.

Kimberly Silva, a mother of three and co-founder of the academy, has seen that first-hand. Her 15-year-old son, who is deaf and has special needs, attends with her 12-year-old twins, who can hear.

“He is in the loop because the twins can sign and include him,” she said. “The twins are also better for it. They see a larger world of people with disabilities. It is a win-win.”

The ASL Academy’s advocates include Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., who called the school “a strong, productive, caring, fabulous educational environment designed to meet the individual needs of their students.”

Martinez said the support is gratifying, particularly given the school’s modest beginnings with a group of parents and teachers “sitting around the kitchen table” to work on the charter.

A former Albuquerque Public Schools administrator, Martinez had taken the lead on the academy after his son, Ben, was born with disabilities and the family had trouble finding a local program that fit his needs.

The academy was designed to give Ben, and children like him, a place for education and support.

“All kids deserve to have confidence and feel like they are a part of this world,” Martinez said.

The ASL Academy can accept private donations via PayPal for their school building campaign at aslacademy.com.

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