IM this article to a friend!

November 29, 2002

School for deaf stresses words; communication skills seen as key to students' success

From: The Tennessean, TN - 29 Nov 2002

Staff Writer

About this series

In the fabric of Tennessee education, four schools stand out. Three serve children whose sight or hearing is impaired; one honors a venerated World War I hero. All are run by the state. This series examines each of these schools by looking at its mission and how its mission has changed over the decades.

Words reign supreme at the Tennessee School for the Deaf. Every day, language is deconstructed to its most basic components. Children read books about every gym class activity they do and every animal they draw in art.

They spend time sitting in special chairs, originally built for playing video games, that vibrate when the teacher speaks. The vibrations help them absorb the rhythm and flow of spoken language.

Some of them must even be taught the concept of what words are, and how they work.

The intense focus on language is vital, said Elaine Alexander, director of instruction at the Knoxville school, which teaches elementary through high school students.

Despite their flying fingers as they sign, the communication skills of children with hearing impairments often lag behind those of children who hear countless words spoken every day of their lives, she said. Even those who can distinguish speech with the help of hearing aids may have profound delays in language development, especially if their hearing loss wasn't discovered before the age of 6 months.

''Deafness is not the handicap,'' Alexander said. ''It's the language part. You're bombarded with language all the time, but deaf children don't get that.''

Changing mission

More than 1,700 Tennessee children have some kind of hearing impairment. About 200 of them attend the School for the Deaf, one of two state-run schools for the deaf in the state. That 200 is less than half the enrollment before the 1975 landmark federal legislation that mandated mainstreaming children with special needs into regular classrooms when possible.

''With more (hearing-impaired) children being educated in public schools, it's changed our mission somewhat to where we've become more of a resource center,'' Alexander said. ''We'll have teachers call and say, 'I just got a deaf child in my class. What do I do?' ''

Hundreds of students receive services in their school systems through the School for the Deaf. The school's educators travel around the state to provide training, and Alexander coordinates meetings with groups of parents statewide. Audiologists, experts in how the ear works, conduct hearing tests for children suspected of having a hearing loss.

The students who come to the Knoxville campus are usually either profoundly deaf, meaning they can hear little, if any, sound even with hearing aids, or live in rural areas where the school systems don't have educators trained to work with hearing-impaired students. About 40% have other disabilities as well, ranging from mental retardation to cerebral palsy to behavioral disorders.

Most of the children live in cottages on the campus, which is tucked into a residential neighborhood along the south bank of the Tennessee River. They travel home every weekend in vans or planes chartered by the school. The intensive focus on language is the school's chief academic advantage. Classes are tiny by public school standards, usually between five and eight students, so students get a lot of individual attention.

But the educators who work there, hearing and deaf, said students get another benefit that's just as important: the simple freedom to talk to whoever's sitting next to them. They also can communicate directly with their teacher. That can make a major difference, said Chris Nipper, a graduate of the school who is now its interim middle school principal.

Nipper went from the Tennessee School for the Deaf to Gallaudet University in Washington, the country's only college specifically for deaf students. In graduate school, however, he had his first experience with learning through a sign-language interpreter. ''With the interpreter, I missed a lot of information the teacher was saying,'' Nipper said. He couldn't take notes without looking away from the interpreter, and eventually got someone to take notes for him.

Hard decisions

Where deaf children should go to school is still a hotly debated issue, said Mary Schaffer, a speech and language expert at the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center. One school of thought argues that they should be integrated as fully as possible with the hearing world, since that is where they ultimately have to function. The other contends that deaf children should be fully immersed in ''deaf culture,'' learning to communicate through sign language with other deaf people.

Each hearing-impaired child in Tennessee goes through a yearly process of determining the best placement, Alexander said. Federal law says education should be provided in the ''least restrictive environment,'' but that doesn't preclude special schools for the deaf or blind.

Violet Ledger, whose 7-year-old grandson, Zackary, is in second grade at the school, said she has wrestled with where to send him. Her son, who also is deaf, graduated from the School for the Deaf, and Ledger said she knows the advantages of a child feeling ''normal'' and the disadvantages of not being comfortable in the hearing world. ''The outside world, it's like they're in a foreign country,'' she said. ''They go in a department store, and they can't tell you what size they need unless they write it down. And then they feel like everybody's looking at them.''

Students at the School for the Deaf do learn how to communicate with the hearing world, Alexander said.

All children get speech therapy in the elementary grades, and those who show some potential keep learning as they get older. They also learn simple life skills, such as how to order food at a restaurant.

In high school, about half the students continue on an academic track that prepares them for college, and half go into the school's extensive vocational program, where some work part time at off-campus jobs.

The pride and joy of the vocational program sits in the lobby of the school's main administrative building: a shiny, hand-built wooden canoe, painstakingly assembled over the course of a semester by students of woodworking teacher Dick Hancock.

Ledger said she may want to put Zackary into a regular public school when he gets older, but her decision will boil down to where he can get the best preparation for adulthood. ''I just want him to be able to go out into the world and be self-sufficient,'' she said.

Coming tomorrow

A look at The York Institute, which is dedicated to ensuring that youth from Tennessee's rural areas have access to a high school education.

© Copyright 2002 The Tennessean