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The field of 14 had narrowed to two.
Jake Frost and Brylee Johnsen watched Thursday as an interpreter explained that one of them would win the trophy in Karen Western Elementary's spelling bee for deaf or hard-of-hearing students. Brylee quickly signed, “I hope it's me. I want the trophy.”
But after another pair of words, the soft-spoken 10-year-old missed a letter in “problem,” putting her in second place.
“Dang it,” she said, to the chuckles of the audience gathered in the school library.
Jake, 8, correctly spelled “machine,” threw his arms over his head and grinned from ear to ear at his win.
“It makes you very proud,” said Angie Frost, his mom.
Indeed, Karen Western started the spelling bee three years ago to give the students a chance to compete with their peers, in their own way, said Kendra Peitz, a deaf educator at the school.
Lots of deaf or hard-of-hearing students are fabulous spellers, she said, because spelling is so visual and so concrete.
But the lag involved in signing the words makes it difficult to compete with hearing children, said Diane Meyer, director of the Suburban Schools Program for Children Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing.
The suburban consortium started about 25 years ago as a means to provide services for students in the suburban school districts.
In addition to several traveling teachers, it now offers programs at Karen Western, Ralston Middle School and Ralston High School for students who need the concentrated instruction for academic or social reasons.
The Omaha Public Schools have their own such program with focused instruction at Washington Elementary, Western Hills Magnet Center, Beveridge Magnet Middle School and Burke High School.
“Our ultimate goal is to put kids back in neighborhood schools,” Peitz said, “but this is a good start to get them on that path.”
The school last year started after-school sign language clubs. Each group, divided by age, has upward of 30 hearing and deaf or hard-of-hearing students. The latter group gets to model lessons and to practice, given that many have hearing parents.
In many ways, Thursday's bee was just like any other. Students had to say the word given to them by a moderator, spell it correctly and say it again. Students had to know the signs for the words and for the letters to spell them.
While judges decided ahead of time that signed spelling took precedence over verbal spelling, they had to match if students did both. Several were eliminated by mismatches.
And there was one technical difficulty when a hearing aid battery failed. The students use a variety of assistive devices, which take five different types of batteries.
Students themselves represent a range of communication modes. Some primarily use sign language, while others sign and speak, a combination called total communication.
But everything else was the same, right down to the cookies and punch. Proud parents and grandparents captured photos and video with smartphones, just as they have been doing across the metropolitan area this spring at dozens of other spelling bees, music programs and athletic contests.
Lillian Montalvo, 10, sat with her arms crossed over her chest after she missed her final word and finished third. She admitted later that she was disappointed, though she was happy in the end with her medal.
“Sometimes you get nervous that you're going to lose,” she said.
For Peggy Corpman, Jake's grandmother, the finish was a nail-biter.
“We were back there trying to calm down grandma,” said Dean Corpman, Jake's grandfather.
Jake signed quickly and confidently. Angie Frost said her son, who uses a cochlear implant that gives him some sound, now teaches her.
“He definitely knows how to adapt to the rest of the hearing world,” she said.
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