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New student inspires Armstrong classmates to learn sign language

When Bella first arrived at Highland Park Elementary she couldn’t communicate with anyone, but not for long
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Highland Park students sign the word ‘cat’ during a presentation to the School District 83 Board of Education Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2023. The students learned American Sign Language to be able to communicate with a new student named Bella.

When two and a half years ago a Grade 2 student named Bella moved to Highland Park Elementary School in Armstrong, she had no one to communicate with — but not for long.

From northern B.C., Bella’s first language is American Sign Language (ASL), and her new school had no ASL speakers when she arrived.

But soon, some of Bella’s new friends at school were wanting to learn how to communicate in her language. That desire to connect grew, until last week at a School District 83 Board of Education meeting, a group of students demonstrated their newfound skills.

The students’ presentation was in sign language, spoken, and in closed captioning, reflecting the new culture being fostered at Highland Park since Bella’s arrival.

“Never have I seen so many students who learned ASL in that short of time. They should be really proud of themselves. Bella and her school mates are a crucial reminder that when given the opportunity, kids shift easily from acceptance to celebration and when they do it impacts an entire school culture,” said Kristina Baker, itinerant hearing resource teacher for the school district.

The group introduced themselves in sign language and helped trustees and those in the audience learn some simple signs, such as ‘hello’ and ‘thank you.’

Baker told the trustees that because she is an itinerant teacher she has the chance to work with many administrators, teachers, CEAs and — best of all — students.

“The district’s mission and vision that we want to empower students to become confident, curious, and caring individuals who thrive in their learning, relationships, and community and to prepare our students to become educated citizens who contribute positively to a dynamic, sustainable, and diverse world,” she said.

“And I believe what is being showcased here today embodies all of that.”

Baker told the trustees that Bella moving to the school provided Highland Park with an opportunity to model the school district’s mission and vision in real time.

“An exceptional signing certified education assistant (CEA) Meagan Hirvinen was hired to support Bella and the rest of the school. She works with Bella and other students when Bella is away,” she said, adding that when “Ms. Meagan” has time she goes into other classes and shows students signing. She has also created an ASL leadership group. “It has been enormously successful. Her dedication is inspiring.”

Baker added that Bella was lucky to have the same dedicated teacher, Jenny Daughtry, for two years. During those years, Daughtry listened, learned and embraced the importance of ASL as a compulsory element of all subject matter.

“She worked with Meagan and I to incorporate ASL into more than just a 15 minute language lesson at the beginning of the day,” Baker said.

“After two years I can honestly say I have never seen so many students who can sign as well as they do in my career! If you show up at Highland Park on any given day you might see a group of students at an assembly signing the national anthem, or groups of leadership students signing Pete the Cat to a group of grade ones. It is something that deserves to be highlighted as what inclusion can look like when it is truly embraced by a school.

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Brendan Shykora

About the Author: Brendan Shykora

I started as a carrier at the age of 8. In 2019 graduated from the Master of Journalism program at Carleton University.
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