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June 13, 2003

Sounding familiar

From: San Francisco Chronicle, CA - Jun 13, 2003

6-year-old graduates from school for the deaf to join Berkeley mainstream elementary school in the fall

Cicero A. Estrella, Chronicle Staff Writer

Like all 6-year-olds, Naveen Yaramala is curious. When he hears an unfamiliar word, he automatically asks for a definition.

"What does "sibling' mean?"

"What's a Martian?"

"What does "separate' mean?"

That inquisitive nature is partly inherent, partly learned. Naveen has been instructed to question constantly. Much of his success will depend on it.

When he was 2, Naveen was diagnosed as totally deaf. But with the help of a cochlear implant two years ago, he has been able to hear and has learned to speak. He has attended the Jean Weingarten Peninsula Oral School for the Deaf in Redwood City in preparation for his full-time immersion in the auditory world. He graduates from the school today and will enter a "mainstream" school as a first-grader next fall.

"He's made so much progress the last two years," said his mother, Sakuntala Yaramala. "He came here doing (sign language). He learned words and then sentences, and now he holds conversations."

Naveen will face typical first-grade challenges, and more. Beyond the ABCs and 1-2-3s are lessons that his classmates with hearing will not have to endure.

At the oral school, he is one of only four students in his classroom, and attends one-on-one therapy sessions daily.

At his new school, Oxford Elementary in Berkeley, Naveen will have to deal with the excess noise produced by a class of 20. He will have fewer one-on-one interactions with the teacher.

Naveen will also have to get used to listening to a teacher who might be facing away from him, perhaps as she is writing on the blackboard. He will need to enunciate to be better understood, and learn at a faster pace.

He will have to learn the definitions of words - "Martian" and "separate," for example - that his classmates have absorbed through everyday interactions since infancy.

"Asking questions increases world knowledge," said Darlene Wong-McKee, Naveen's teacher. "So much of what we know we learn from overhearing, starting as infants. Babies are aware of language from the time they're born. They're not talking, but they've developed a receptive language. Naveen's filling in the gaps by asking lots of questions."

It is one of the signs that he is ready to move forward.

To ease his transition, Naveen has attended kindergarten classes once a week at Hoover Elementary in Redwood City. The oral school has been in touch with Oxford Elementary to apprise it of Naveen's needs, such as a front-row seat or a microphone and transmitter for the teacher that sends signals directly to Naveen's implant.

Naveen communicated with sign language until two years ago, when he received the cochlear implant, a device that provides hearing sensation through electrical impulses.

The implants are controversial. Some deaf people believe implants are an affront to their way of life. They argue that implants are unnecessary and that their form of communication - sign language - does not put them at a disadvantage.

But Sakuntala Yaramala and her husband, Venkat Yaramala, decided implants would be best for their son.

The family sacrificed so that Naveen could attend the oral school. For the past two school years, Naveen, his mother and younger brother lived at a Redwood City apartment on weekdays and rejoined Venkat in Berkeley, where he lives and works, during weekends and vacations. With Naveen's graduation, the family will be reunited for good.

The oral school was established in 1969. Its history of preparing deaf and hard-of-hearing children for mainstream schools existed long before cochlear implants and recent advances in hearing aids. Its on-campus programs teach kids at three age levels: under age 2, for the parent and infant/toddler program; 2 to 5, for preschool; and 5 to 8, for primary classes.

In addition, the school provides services and tracks the progress of graduates through mainstream middle school. The school serves 60 students, including 25 in the mainstream.

Naveen says he will miss the school, but looks forward to his new one. He wants to try different sports - baseball, basketball, football, soccer - and is eager to meet his classmates.

"I want to see my new friends. I want to learn all their names," he said. Those are sure to be his first questions.

E-mail Cicero A. Estrella at .

©2003 San Francisco Chronicle