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A Learning Community

Students in a hard-of-hearing program learn life skills by going into the community every two weeks.

Seventeen-year-old Vanessa Campbell took a few cautious steps, swung her arm back and catapulted the bowling ball down the lane. The ball flew off her fingertips with a bit of a thud. Then it picked up momentum, glided straight down the center of the lane and toppled every last pin.

"No way. It isn't happening," her friend Jill Ruddy, 15, yelled as she rolled her eyes.

It's 10:30 on a Wednesday morning, and Vanessa and Jill and four of their classmates are not in school. They're bowling at Liberty Lanes in Largo. But that doesn't mean they're not learning.

They're all students in the program for the deaf and hard-of-hearing at Pinellas Park High, taking part in community-based instruction, a program that teaches students a variety of independent living skills. Every two weeks, they visit different places, including malls, a coin laundry, restaurants, grocery stores and recreational spots.

Their curriculum supplements the countywide community-based instruction program that provides vocational training. Their teacher, Kim Black, said she and school occupational therapist Patrice O'Brien worked to add these activities because they believe they're essential. "We begged for the program. We knew their needs weren't being met in the classroom," Black said.

Without these programs, the students were missing out, she said. "Parents are working, and on the weekends, they don't have time to really teach them independent livings skills," she said.

"Specifically for my students, since communication is such a barrier, the more opportunities to get them out into the community, the better," Black said.

Black, who has been teaching deaf and hard-of-hearing students for 15 years at Pinellas Park High, said her school offers one of three self-contained programs for the deaf in the county. The others are Cross Bayou Elementary School and Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School.

In these programs, students study their core curriculum with other deaf and hard-of-hearing students and take electives with hearing students. Pinellas Park High also offers another option in which deaf students are completely "mainstreamed" and take all of their classes with hearing students.

Hearing students also have an opportunity to learn American Sign Language for foreign language credit. About 170 students have taken advantage of that option.

For each visit, Black prepares her students for the trip. Before going bowling, Black went over bowling alley routines, such as checking out shoes and grabbing lunch at the concession stand.

Black also puts a strong emphasis on financial issues. She went over budgeting and discussed how much money they would need in order to play two games and eat lunch.

Her goal is for each of her students to live on their own.

"Every one of these kids has the ability to function as independent adults," she said.

For many of the students, taking charge in these activities is new. It's common for hearing family members to help them out, Black said, so sometimes they don't know how to handle these situations by themselves.

Each of the students have favorite spots that they've visited in community-based instruction. Jill enjoyed the food at the Olive Garden. Angela McCuen, 16, likes shopping at the mall to keep up with the latest trends, and Holly DuBois, 15, had fun bowling and hanging out with her friends. But they all recognize that they're learning important skills while they have a good time.

Angela said that she's learned to rely on herself. "I've learned that you don't have to get others to help you," she said. Her trip to the supermarket was especially helpful because she was used to shopping with her family, but not on her own, she said.

The students run into their own challenges when they take part in these activities. Some of them read lips, some communicate through American Sign Language and others use a combination.

Jill said that she sometimes feels uncomfortable when she doesn't understand people, but she's learned to say, "Tell me again or show me or write for me."

Angela recognizes that developing these communication skills is a process. Although she's gained confidence, she said, "I need more practice."

Black said she has already seen growth in the students. "Last year, they stood back and waited for me, the hearing adult, to tell them what they need," she said.

But this year, she said, they dove right in and headed straight for the counter for their bowling shoes.

During their visit to Liberty Lanes, Black recorded each step of their field trip on a digital camera. Over the next few weeks, the students will create a computerized story of their adventures.