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November 29, 2002

Deaf students learn words from experience

From: The Tennessean, TN - 29 Nov 2002

Staff Writer

Growing school in Jackson serves students 2-13

The testing rooms at the West Tennessee School for the Deaf feel like chambers in a submarine.

The air is completely dead. The doors are sealed tight to keep outside sound from trickling in and distracting the baby who sits on his mother's lap, unable to tell her if he can hear her when she speaks.

From another room, audiologist Carrie Crittendon sends different sounds through speakers on each side of the baby. If he looks toward the sound, he's rewarded with a brief look at a mechanical rabbit that lights up and crashes a pair of cymbals.

The scene is repeated over and over every day at the Jackson school. Crittendon and other audiologists test for hearing impairments, then fit children with hearing aids and teach them and their parents how to use them.

That was the original mission of this small school in Jackson, Tenn., which resembles a doctor's office from the outside. But demand for a school for the deaf in West Tennessee led to an expansion of that mission in 1986. The school now serves close to 60 children ages 2-13, most of whom live close enough to go home every afternoon.

''This year is our highest enrollment ever,'' said Barbara Bone, the school's superintendent.

The education isn't just for students, Bone said. The school offers sign language classes for adults as well.

''Probably 95 percent of our parents don't know sign language,'' she said.

Teachers focus on two things at this school: language and experience. In one preschool class, students do the hokeypokey — learning, as they go, the meaning of words like ''turn'' and ''foot.''

''You give them the experience first, and then the language to go with it,'' said Jeannie Seneker, an audiologist at the school.

Some of the students have never gone to school anywhere else. Others transfer from local public schools when their hearing impairments cause them to fall behind.

Students who can hear speech with hearing aids still often miss ''s'' and ''d'' sounds at the end of words, Seneker said. That means they don't easily learn plurals or past tenses of verbs.

''You don't realize the impact of those sounds, of not being able to hear them,'' she said. ''You have to intentionally teach that.''

Few teachers in regular public schools understand all that needs to be done for deaf children, Seneker said.

''There's a reason there's a deaf education degree,'' she said. ''They're not special-ed teachers. They're deaf educators.''

© Copyright 2002 The Tennessean