Move to cut sign language classes at Paso Robles High puts teens in a bind

Budget shortfalls force school to eliminate a class some students need to qualify

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comApril 24, 2012 

Having studied sign language since fifth grade, Marina Perry planned to one day become an interpreter for the deaf. But then she learned that Paso Robles High School planned to eliminate its American Sign Language program.

While she had intended to use sign language to satisfy her language requirement for entrance to Cal State Northridge, she fears she won’t have enough language courses to meet that requirement when the program is eliminated.

“I won’t be able to go to a four-year college, like I’d planned,” Marina said.

Upset about the district’s decision to eliminate the program, nine students in the sign language program spoke out at Tuesday night’s school board meeting.

Beforehand, they wrote a news release and sent it to local media outlets and encouraged others to speak out against the cut.

“We’re just getting as many people to call, email or complain as we possibly can,” said Tori Barron, a sophomore sign language student.

Before the meeting, Principal Randy Nelson said he was committed to helping the students meet their language requirement.

“Right now, we’re trying to work out the potential options for the kids,” he said, noting that students might be able to finish their coursework through Cuesta College’s North County campus.

The issue demonstrates how students will be directly affected by budget cuts next year. During the meeting, other students and parents lamented the planned layoffs of a bilingual counselor and an FFA counselor/teacher, and one former student noted the loss of the schools’ dance program.

Budget woes

The Paso Robles school district’s financial difficulties — caused by cuts in state spending and declining enrollment — have forced administrators to find ways to trim the budget.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board was expected to approve 18 furlough days for classified staff, and the trustees approved a plan to have parents pay for their children to ride buses to school. The school board had previously approved 18 furlough days for teachers.

But students in the sign language classes say the cuts are having too great an impact on students. “They’re just taking everything away from the students,” Tori said.

Junior David Oliver said his attention-deficit disorder made it difficult to study other languages. “This really got me focused,” he said, noting his grades improved after taking ASL courses. “With ASL, I started focusing better.”

When administrators told Nelson he needed to cut eight teachers and one administrator, he said he had to look to demand. And ASL courses simply didn’t have as many students as language courses such as Spanish. “As principal, I hate it,” Nelson said. “But it’s the reality we live in today.”

Boxed into a corner

Of the 50 students who planned to take ASL a second year, he said, 18 were seniors. Fourteen had not taken another language, meaning they would need to find another way to take sign language to fulfill their college requirement.

To gain entrance to the California State University system or the University of California, students must have two years of foreign language coursework in the same language.

Paso Robles High’s two-year sign language program would count as a foreign language. But because many students began taking the class as juniors, Marina said, they are now in a bind.

“It’s not like I can enroll in another foreign language course to complete my second year of foreign language requirements,” she said in a news release.

Taking a stand

Paso Robles is the only school in the North County that offers sign language, Marina said. And while school counselors have suggested she might be able to take classes at Cuesta College, Marina said that’s not practical.

“I have no way of getting there,” said Marina, who walks to school.

Tori’s mother, Nicolette Harley, said her daughter has been noticeably disappointed with the decision to cut sign language.

“She was doing well with it and really fell in love with it,” Harley said.

As a parent, she said, she’s frustrated with the constant cuts. Yet, she’s pleased the students are taking a stand.

“I think the kids should be sticking up for themselves,” she said.

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