Sign Language Club at Johnstown
elementary is ‘Neet’
BOCES special education teacher Helen Neet is always in “go”
mode. Walking through the halls of Jansen Avenue Elementary
School in Johnstown, she continually pats a head, offers
direction, or answers a commonly asked question: “How do you say
this in sign language?” Mrs. Neet, who teaches hard-of-hearing
and deaf students, said she heard the question so often that she
knew the time was right to offer a sign-language club for all
Jansen Avenue students.
The club gathers in two classrooms on Tuesday mornings at 8:30
am. Mrs. Neet works with students in grades 3-6 while her
daughter, teacher aide/interpreter Lena Neet-Marsh, works with
students in grades K-2.
younger children spend time learning to sign numbers and colors
and simple statements such as “Good morning” and “My name is …”
The older group learns more school-related vocabulary and
everyday phrases. Both groups participate with enthusiasm.
kids have a real interest. They frequently stop by my door to
ask how to sign something,” Mrs. Neet smiles. “They want to be
able to communicate with my students.”
Mrs. Neet says there are approximately 10 children in the
district who are hearing impaired. Her club, however, attracts
more than 65 students to its before-school meeting.
She credits their interest in the club to the overall culture of
their school, and ultimately to its principal, Patricia Sotero.
More than 60 percent of all Jansen Avenue students come in
early, give up recess, or stay after school to take part in
clubs and activities such as the sign language club.
“She is out of this world,” Mrs. Neet says with enthusiasm when
describing the school’s new principal, who took over the post in
Sept. 2005. “We’ve been warmly welcomed with open arms. There is
no prejudice or ridicule here. Everybody is welcome,” Mrs. Neet
explains. “We don’t talk about ‘special ed’ or ‘hearing
impairment.’ We talk about students with special needs and
acceptance and understanding.”
Mrs. Sotero, in turn, has praise for Mrs. Neet. “Helen is always
available. She’s adopted all the kids in the school. Helen is
such a team player. She contributes on all levels.”
the beginning of the school year, two Jansen Avenue students
were frightened by the hard of hearing and deaf students who
were now attending Jansen Avenue School after their classroom
moved from Warren Street School over the summer. That all
changed when the students had a chance to sit together on the
floor and talk. The children were allowed to ask questions and
to get to know each other, and when the day was over, the
students went home excited by the opportunity to learn sign
language and to communicate with new friends.
Mrs. Neet began her teaching career 32 years ago, first in West
Virginia and then Kentucky. After a year of teaching second
grade and three more years working with students with
disabilities, she didn’t think she had found her niche.
“I had an acquaintance who was teaching a sign language class at
a local college. He lost his hearing in Vietnam. He was a very
good motivator,” Mrs. Neet explains, noting that she has been
teaching deaf and hard-of-hearing students ever since.
one of Mrs. Neet’s current young students, recently reached an
important milestone: He can now tie his own shoes.
Hearing the news, Mrs. Neet signs to Michael that he should sit
down. She joins him on the floor. Moments later, with a little
help and lots of encouragement, the shoe is tied, the student
beams, and Mrs. Neet rejoices.
“I love it!” she says. “If I have a purpose in life, it’s to be
with these kids.”
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