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March 1, 2005

School for hearing impaired focuses on sound activities

From: Nashua Telegraph, NH - Mar 1, 2005

Language lesson

Telegraph Correspondent

His mother calls him her "peanut." He loves cars and trucks and watching his grandfather tinker in the yard. He chatters constantly about his friends and can't wait to go to school every day.

His name is Evan, he's 4½ years old and he's deaf.

It's hard to believe the pint-sized Hudson resident, termed "profoundly deaf," has 100 percent hearing loss in both ears. The fact that he can listen and talk like any other child is due in part to the cochlear implant circling his right ear. But most of the credit, according to Jessalyn Miskell, Evan's mother, goes to HEAR in New Hampshire on Kimball Road in Hooksett. The only school in the state serving hearing-impaired children, HNH has been instrumental in helping Evan prepare for the realities of a public elementary school.

"HEAR in NH is a great school," Miskell said. "They are so informed in cochlear implants and hearing aids and where the children should be at. It really helped me a lot to learn how far I should push him. Without HNH, Evan wouldn't be where he is today."

Children who attend HNH learn to listen and talk through an auditory-oral approach, meaning every activity they do and every lesson they're taught is centered around language.

"There's language connected to everything we do," said Michael Moon, founder and director of the school. "The message is 'You have to use your words.' "

It sounds simple, but according to Moon, who is also a teacher of the deaf, it works.

"We have to set up situations so they hear the same words over and over in the same context - there has to be a certain amount of structure," he explained.

Even snack time serves as a lesson for the kids. Teachers ask students which kind of juice they want, not if they want some. That way, the children must answer rather than just shake their heads yes or no. It's subtle exercises that make all the difference, said Alice Walton, resource coordinator for HNH.

"We teach them how to interpret sound," Walton explained. "They sing, they dance, but all of it is geared to speech and language. . . . It looks very much like a regular school and kindergarten. They're doing the same things as other kids, they're just doing them a little differently."

In addition to the speaking and listening skills, the students learn other valuable life lessons, Miskell said.

"They get them to be very independent," she said. "They get them to realize there's absolutely nothing wrong with them."

The small class sizes and favorable student-to-teacher ratio also boost the children's chances of mainstreaming successfully into public elementary schools. HNH's preschool and kindergarten classes, which currently enroll five children each, provide two teams of three educational professionals: a general teacher, a speech and language pathologist, and a teacher of the deaf. Opened in 1999, the nonprofit private school has already graduated many fresh, young faces and sent them into the hearing world, armed with the necessary tools not just to survive, but to thrive.

Take, for instance, 8-year-old Corey Burrell. Fully integrated into second grade at Lyndeborough Central School, Corey has severe hearing loss and wears two hearing aids. Having attended preschool and kindergarten at HNH, Corey still receives one-on-one tutoring from an itinerant teacher that travels to Lyndeborough twice a week.

"Corey has been extremely successful (at Lyndeborough)," said his mother, Beverly. "It's so important for the traditional school system to be supportive."

Which it is, she added. For example, if the room gets too loud and Corey has a hard time hearing because of background noise, he has the authority to flick the light switch on and off until the room quiets.

Burrell said she and her husband, Ron, first noticed their son had trouble hearing when he was about 3 years old. Living in Derry at the time, the Burrells enrolled Corey into the public school system.

"He wasn't really progressing there," Burrell said. "Basically, he was just spinning his wheels. We went over (to HNH), and it was just fantastic what they were doing with their students. The teachers seemed to be really dedicated and focused. In a matter of six months, we saw a phenomenal difference in Corey - he was just a different kid. The school has really done wonders for him."

By educating the hearing-impaired before they enter school, HNH reaches the students at a critical time of their verbal development. Eighty percent of language is learned between birth and age 5, according to Walton, and average children of that age have some 15,000 words in their vocabularies.

For parents, catching hearing loss as early as possible can keep a child from starting with a deficit.

"A typical child listens for almost a year before they learn how to talk," Moon said.

In addition, he said, children and adults alike hear a particular word about 150 times before incorporating it into their own vocabularies. In short, timing is critical. Fortunately, hospitals now test the hearing of every newborn so auditory therapy can begin immediately.

To meet the growing need for educational programs geared toward families of infants with hearing loss, HNH started the Family-Infant-Toddler program last fall.

HNH set up the FIT group "because we realized the families of kids under 3 needed more attention than they were getting," Moon said. "We're all kind of putting our eggs in that early intervention basket."

FIT meets from 2-4 p.m. Wednesdays, and parents are encouraged to share helpful tips and support each other while learning to cope with their children's hearing impairment.

"It's really important for parents to talk among themselves so they know they're not alone," Walton said.

Milford residents Helen and Robert Schroeder recently started attending FIT with their 16-week-old son, Jack.

The benefit, said Helen Schroeder, is "realizing we're not the only ones who have a child with hearing loss. Just seeing the other kids and seeing how well they're doing is great. You get some good pointers from other parents, as well."

For Schroeder, joining the HNH family has given her perspective on Jack's hearing loss, which is mild to moderate.

"It's not a sad thing anymore," she said. "It's a hopeful thing. The only way I've learned that information is through HEAR in NH. I expect him to go to college one day - I don't feel like he's limited."

To bring their unique services to more members of the community, HNH is in the process of setting up a scholarship fund by holding a fund-raiser. The school is raffling a $10,000 savings bond, a prize underwritten by Kiwanis of Manchester. It plans to raise $50,000 by selling 500 tickets at $100 each. If the school reaches that goal by the time the winner is drawn June 17, Stephen Singer of Merchants Automotive Group in Hooksett will match the funds.

If HNH is successful, the money will allow more youngsters such as Evan, Corey and Jack the chance for a life filled with sounds and words.

As far as their parents are concerned, there couldn't be a better gift than the gift of communicating with their children. And that's what HNH has given them.

"HEAR in NH is a phenomenal school," Burrell said. "They really set the foundation for these kids to go out and succeed."

© 2003, Telegraph Publishing Company, Nashua, New Hampshire