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June 6, 2004

Deaf, hard of hearing students to have more supportive environment

From: Charleston Post Courier, SC - Jun 6, 2004

Of The Post and Courier Staff

Charleston County's deaf and hard of hearing students have been scattered around the county, meaning less opportunity for their teachers to plan together and fewer occasions for students to interact with other deaf students outside of their own classes.

The arrangement had children bouncing from Oakland Elementary School in West Ashley to Laing Middle School in Mount Pleasant to North Charleston High School. The children often had a single teacher to instruct them in all subjects, and had to give up their friends in their regular classes when they moved to different schools in different parts of the county.

Some parents responded by sending their children to a special school for deaf students in Spartanburg. There, they could learn in a single setting where they built friendships and learned from top teachers.

But for parents like Ann Kirby, whose 8-year-old daughter, Alex, is deaf, Spartanburg was never an option. "We've always wanted Alex home. That way we'll be able to communicate with her," Kirby said. "She needs to be raised by her parents."

Now, Alex can stay home while learning at one school.

The district's deaf and hard of hearing students will move to Charlestowne Academy in North Charleston next year, the district's only kindergarten through 12th grade school. Parents and teachers say it will mark an opportunity for teacher collaboration, more student interaction and more parent networking.

Kirby said she is excited by the move, which will strengthen the district's program. She even got her youngest child into the North Charleston magnet school so they could both go to the same school. Alex is excited, too.

"They only get to see the kids from the middle school and high school once in a while," Kirby said. "She's so happy she gets to see her friends all the time."

In the past, students saw each other only on infrequent field trips that were difficult to plan and coordinate. With all the students at the same school, field trips will be easier to plan, teachers said.

The district has about 90 hearing impaired students. Those students will remain at their regular schools, where they take regular classes with the help of interpreters and other assistance.

The move affects the 24 students in three elementary, one middle and one high school class because of the severity of their impairment. Many of those students attend regular classes for part of the day and will continue to do so at Charlestowne Academy.

They will now have the opportunity to make friends in those regular classes that they can keep throughout their school years. And there will be more opportunities for the older students to work with the younger students, tutoring and mentoring them.

And all five teachers will now be at the same campus and will no longer look at themselves as simply elementary, middle or high school teachers. The teachers, who are certified to teach from kindergarten through 12th grade, can take advantage of their particular strengths.

If a teacher is better in math, that teacher may work with a student on his math classes. If another is better with preschool, that teacher may work with the younger students.

"For the last number of years, we had little red schoolhouses at each level," said Dean Walters, who teaches at Laing. As the only middle school teacher, he was responsible for teaching everything from English to health.

"When you've got one person, you have got to have somebody who can be all things to all people," he said.

The teachers recently got together and talked about the needs of their students, said Kathy Amick, who teaches at Oakland.

"We feel like this is such a good use of our resources. When we're scattered, we can't do that," she said.

Amick said she also expects the move will mean better networking among parents. Parents with a deaf child in high school can offer guidance or suggestions to those whose children are just entering school, she said.

That's a resource that hasn't always been easily accessible for parents.

"I hope more parents get involved. It would be great for the kids if they do," Kirby said.

There were some concerns when the move to Charlestowne Academy first became public. Some parents at the high school worried that their children would no longer be able to participate in sports. Students in the program can continue to play sports at North Charleston High even after they move over to Charlestowne Academy, said Dianne Irvin, who oversees special education in the district.

Others worried about their children being isolated and kept out of regular classes. The teachers said students will continue to participate in some regular classes; they will just have stronger academic support in the new setting.

Alex was in another district before coming to Charleston County this year. Kirby said she has seen her daughter's writing skills blossom at Oakland Elementary. She expects that improvement to continue at Charlestowne Academy.

"I can't wait to see what's going to happen," she said. "All the kids will do really well having this program there. It will be absolutely great."

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