Oct. 29, 2020 12:00 pm

Pennsylvania School for the Deaf teachers are taking to Zoom to help their students create a plan to vote

"While addressing social justice issues is vitally important, the heart of civic engagement in our country is voting," Melissa Draganac-Hawk the school's director of student affairs told columnist Krys Sipple.

Karen-Leslie Henry, PSD’s coordinator of community relations, during this year’s ADL Walk Against Hate.

(Courtesy photo)

The Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, located in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, is the heart of the Deaf community in the greater Philadelphia area.

Peter L. Bailey, head of school, remarked on the difficulties the pandemic has presented to the community. “The impact of COVID-19 on the students and staff of the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf has been profound,” he said. “Many of our students come from homes with family members who do not use sign language, so since we shut down in-person operations in March, they have been struggling with a lack of connection and direct communication.”

This disconnect has been especially difficult during the recent social unrest in the country.

PSD campus in Germantown.

“A large number of the students and staff at PSD are people of color,” Bailey said. “In the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, and similar deaths across the country, we felt strongly that we had to take a stand as a school — to set an example — and that complacency was not an option. We became the first (and I think we are still the only) Deaf school in the country to display the Black Lives Matter flag on our campus.”

“We know that people of color have felt marginalized and oppressed in the community,” he added. “As an individual and as PSD’s Head of School, I regret that has been the case. I want to share our commitment to diversity and our solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement all over the country.”

“As one way to address these issues,” he continued, “I decided to create a new staff position at PSD. Two years ago, I attended a National Black Deaf Advocacy conference and found that many schools and organizations had staff positions to aid in the prevention of injustice, inequity, and racism at their organizations. Now seemed the perfect time to move forward with creating such a position at PSD. The new Coordinator of Equity and Inclusion will focus on social justice education and will help us with professional development, problem-solving, conflict resolution and curriculum changes. We want to model for our students interactions that respect and embrace each other’s differences. Racism is not tolerated here!”

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Melissa Draganac-Hawk, PSD’s director of student affairs and the board president of the National Association for the Deaf, explained that these issues have been especially tough on the PSD community.

“Since the pandemic started, and we are all home instead of on campus, everyone is feeling very disconnected from each other,” she said. “The news of the racial protests this spring hit the staff really hard. We have so many students of color; how do we listen to their perspective and give them ways to think critically about the news they are seeing on their televisions and computer screens?”

To access the voter hotline in ASL, call 301-818-VOTE (301-818-8683).

The administration provided teachers and staff with training on racial equity and social justice, and the high school team developed a new class on social justice and community engagement. Draganac-Hawk added, “We wanted to give the staff the tools to analyze their own biases and recognize that systematic racism is a problem in the United States, and we wanted to give our students the tools to handle these kinds of issues in their own lives and in the community.”

Karen Leslie-Henry, PSD’s coordinator of community relations, shared an additional example of how PSD students and staff work together on social justice issues to make a difference in the community.

“As PSD proudly celebrates our 200th year as a school,” she said “we are also proud that this is the 8th year we have been affiliated with the Anti-Defamation League’s No Place for Hate campaign. By providing an innovative and powerful model for creating more inclusive environments, No Place for Hate aims to reduce bias and bullying, increase appreciation for diversity and build communities of respect.”

“Every year, PSD students create a project for participation in the ADL campaign,” Leslie-Henry added. “In this year’s Creating a Culture of Dialogue project, our students produced a picture dictionary in American Sign Language of anti-bullying words and phrases to promote the students’ ability to have discussions about bullying with other students and families.”

“Additionally, on October 18, PSD staff and students participated in ADL’s 10th annual and first virtual Walk Against Hate,” she said.No Place for Hate values are woven into all we do here at the school to give students the knowledge, skills and confidence to promote diversity, inclusion and allyship for themselves and their community.”

Draganac-Hawk concluded by adding, “While addressing social justice issues is vitally important, the heart of civic engagement in our country is voting.”

“PSD has a student body that includes students up to age 21, so we often have students of voting age,” she said. “This year, PSD teachers are working hard via Zoom to help our students create a plan to vote, something that has to include communication access. […] We try to educate PSD students on how to actively address issues of public concern, and to teach them that voting is one of the best ways to make that happen.”


The National Association for the Deaf has provided a voter hotline to provide resources on the voting process during the COVID-19 pandemic – in American Sign Language (ASL). To access the hotline, call 301-818-VOTE (301-818-8683).


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