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Siblings of Deaf Students Barred From Taking Buses to Sign Language School

By Julie Shapiro | October 17, 2012 7:14am

KIPS BAY — Shirley Gallardo has two daughters at the only public school in New York City that teaches sign language.

But she has only one who is allowed on a half-empty school bus.

Gallardo, a Bronx resident who is herself hearing impaired, is forced to trek an hour each way to take her girls to the American Sign Language and English Lower School on East 23rd Street because education chiefs refuse to transport Shylene, 8.

Shylene's sister Lyana, 5, is eligible for free busing because she is hearing impaired, but Shylene, who does not have a disability, is not — despite being eligible to attend the school, which teaches her to communicate with her mom and sibling.

"I'm upset," Gallardo said in sign language through an interpreter. "Nothing has been working at all."

Gallardo added that she is angry about having to pay the $9 daily subway fare to get her kids to and from school. She said the city has refused to reconsider allowing Shylene on the bus with her sister — even though there's plenty of room.

The American Sign Language School, on East 23rd Street near Second Avenue, serves 218 students from across the city, nearly all of whom are either hearing impaired or have a hearing-impaired sibling, parent or grandparent, school officials said.

But the buses that serve the school are exclusively for special-needs students, which means general education students are not allowed to ride them, said Mary Grace Gallagher, the school's busing coordinator.

Five families in the school have one child eligible for a bus and another child who is ineligible. In another 10 families, at least one of the parents is hearing impaired, but the child is not, so the child is ineligible, Gallagher said.

"It's very, very frustrating for our families," Gallagher said.

In previous years, siblings who were initially barred from taking the bus were eventually allowed on. So far this year, that hasn't happened, Gallagher said.

The Department of Education said in an email that general education students generally do not receive buses to schools outside of their district.

There are also other restrictions on general education bus service listed on the DOE website, including that every bus route must have at least 11 students and be no more than five miles long.

Millie Wagner, 26, a Queens resident who is hearing impaired, spends most days crisscrossing three boroughs just so her 6-year-old daughter, Mayra, can attend the American Sign Language School.

Wagner's day starts with an hour-long trip from her Ozone Park home to the Kips Bay school, and then she hops back on the subway to go to the Bronx Community College, where she is a student.

In the afternoon she heads back to Kips Bay to pick up Mayra and drop her off with a babysitter, and then she goes back up to The Bronx for more classes before finally heading home to Queens.

While Wagner is upset by the time and cost of all that traveling, she said it matters more that Mayra goes to a school with both deaf and hearing children.

"It's very important to me that she learns my language and culture so she can respect me as a person and understand me," Wagner said in sign language through an interpreter. "For her to really understand me, she needs to understand what it's like to be me. "

Jeanna Johnson, a Harlem resident who has two daughters at the school, has been writing letters and making phone calls for more than a month to get her older daughter, Sola, onto a bus.

Johnson's younger daughter, Kharis, 5, is hearing impaired and is eligible for a bus, but Sola, 7, is not, so Johnson winds up taking them both to school every day.

Kharis, who has Down syndrome, can sing and speak a little, but communicates best through sign language. Johnson wants to make sure that Kharis and Sola grow up able to understand each other.

Johnson said she spoke with Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott's office, but staff there told her the best solution would be to send Sola to her local zoned school in Harlem and to have her take sign language lessons after school instead.

"This isn't like ballet class or gymnastics or violin class," Johnson said. "It's our life. We should be learning American Sign Language to be able to communicate with [Kharis]."

Johnson and other parents praised the American Sign Language School for its small classes, which all have both general and special education teachers to ensure all students get individualized attention. They said their children love the school.

But some parents whose children aren't getting bus service said they had difficulty finding work because of the daily trips to and from the school, and others said they saw the problem as unfair treatment of families with disabilities.

"We're really fighting for it," Johnson said of the bus service. "We don't know where to go. We've just been waiting."