GRAMERCY — Watfa Shama is surrounded by American Sign Language speakers nearly every day.
For the past five years, she has been the principal of P.S. 47, the American Sign Language and English Secondary School in Gramercy where a substantial portion of the students are either hearing impaired or have hearing-impaired family members.
Although she is still struggling to master the language herself, she has become dedicated to making “deaf culture” a unifying element of the school, ensuring that all students are treated equally and are taught to understand what makes that particular culture unique.
“It strings the school together,” said Shama, a mother of two young children who now lives in Westchester. “Students are responsible for themselves and their actions. There’s a level of respect for each other.”
Shama was born and raised in the Parkchester section of The Bronx. She spent some time teaching in Miami but ultimately missed New York too much to stay away.
When she returned, she taught at her alma mater, Lehman High School, and served as an assistant principal at two other schools before landing at the 210-student American Sign Language and English Secondary School, which she said immediately felt like home.
“It’s a gem of a school,” she said. “It’s my family.”
Q: Where did you go to high school?
WS: I didn’t have such a great high school [experience]. I mean, it was a good school [Lehman High School in The Bronx], but I was the truant, the one who didn’t go to school, the one who started smoking at a young age.
I made it. I went to college. People there really cared. I had a couple of teachers and guidance counselors who were really like, "You can do it. You can do it.”
Q: What made you decide to pursue a career in education?
WS: In college, I was going for engineering. I started tutoring a group of high school students, and I just had so much fun explaining things and making stories out of things that were happening.
Someone said, "Why don’t you take an education class and see what you think?" So I did, and I was like, "Alright, this is for me, this is what I want to do." And I don’t think there’s been a day that I regret becoming an educator. It’s my passion.
Q: What was it about the American Sign Language and English Secondary School that attracted you?
WS: When I took over the school, it was in transition. It wasn’t doing well academically. It wasn’t doing well security-wise.
The minute I walked into the building — You know how, when you walk into the house you’re going to buy, you know it’s your home? You’ve seen a hundred other places, and the minute you walk into that house, you’re just like, "This is it?" You don’t even get past the living room.
I was downstairs, and I was just like, "This is it, this is where I belong." And it just worked out well.
Q: How would you describe what changes have gone on in the past five years?
WS: We’re doing well. There’s been ups and downs, but it’s a community where the kids advocate for themselves. They advocate for others. It’s nurturing. It’s safe. I mean, we take kids from all over New York City. They all come here, and we’re one community.
Now we’re at a place where deaf culture runs through the school. It strings the school together.
Q: What are the demographics of the school?
WS: We are about 50 percent family member is deaf. Then we have about 25 percent of deaf or hard-of-hearing. And then the other 25 percent come because they want to learn about American Sign Language. They want to learn about deaf culture.
Q: What kind of programming do you have that caters to these different populations?
WS: English is the main language of the school. ASL is used in a percentage of the classes, and again, it depends year to year, how many deaf students we have and how many deaf staff members.
The biggest umbrella is that ASL and deaf culture are embedded in every classroom, so if it’s learning ASL signs to a story or reading a book in English about deaf culture or even just the little things of equal access, right? So turning off the volume on the TV and everybody reading the captions so nobody hears the sound. Everybody has the same access to the video. So making sure that it’s equal access across the board for every student.
Q: What surprised you in learning about deaf culture?
WS: That it is a culture.
When we think about the Spanish language, it’s attached to the music and the food. It’s the same thing with deaf culture.
I’m given a sign name. I have a W that waves over my forehead for leadership. Only a deaf person can give you a sign name. Things like how you actually get someone’s attention — it’s tapping someone on the shoulder or on the arm to let them know you want to speak to them.
Those are some of the little things that I learned.
Q: What are your personal goals for the school?
WS: Making sure that every child is able to reach for those stars and be prepared to go to college or the work world, whichever they choose. And I think that is my goal, not only the quality of the education but making sure they’re global citizens, making sure that they’re prepared.