Tuesday, November 07, 2000

Deaf school on cutting edge

Parents pushed for 'oral education' method

By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Teacher Tracy Staff reads to students at Ohio Valley Oral School.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
        Eight weeks ago, 5-year-old Haley Gartner spoke in five- to seven-word utterances. So when she said, “Daddy, I want to tell you a story,” Michael Gartner said it was a defining moment.

        Her version of The Three Little Pigs was not exactly traditional, but she got the general themes, her father said proudly.

        What makes it remarkable is that Haley, who is deaf, is just learning to speak. She's a student at one of the Tristate's newest schools, the Ohio Valley Oral School in Montgomery. It's one of about 35 oral deaf education schools in the country and the first private oral school in Ohio.

  Ohio Valley Oral School in Montgomery is a chartered private school that:
  • Is the first private oral school in Ohio supported by the Oberkotter Foundation, which sponsors oral deaf education nationwide.
  • Offers accelerated speech and language development without the use of sign language.
  • Serves deaf and hearing-impaired children ages 2-7.
  • Aims to mainstream children into regular classrooms by third grade.
  • Has an enrollment of 17; two-thirds have cochlear implants, while the others use hearing aids.
        The school, which favors speech over sign language, opened Sept. 5. Seventeen students, ages 2-7, are enrolled.

        Ohio Valley Oral School is on the cutting edge of a national trend fu eled by parents who think oral education gives their deaf children the best shot at making it in a hearing world. Cochlear implants that help deaf people hear some sound have driven the demand for more oral schools nationwide.

        Technological advances, though, have reignited a 200-year-old debate about which method of teaching deaf children is most beneficial to their academic and social development, said Jeri Traub, special education instructor at Wheelock College in Boston. Those methods include oral and total communication, which includes American Sign Language.

        “There's a group of people out there who believe that American Sign Language is the language which deaf children should be taught to communicate,” she said. “Sign language is a natural native language of deaf persons that's passed on from generation to generation to generation. It represents a cultural and linguistic community.”

Preparing for success

               The Ohio Valley Oral School offers accelerated speech and language skills, along with regular curriculum, to prepare children for success in a traditional school. It's intense learning for young children, but that's what they need to be successful, Executive Director Maria Sentelik said.

        “These children sometimes start out with five words. They're 3 years old, and that's all they can say,” she said. “Our goal is to have them leave us, and when they leave us, we want other people to be able to understand them.”

        That's important for academic success in a regular school and for peer acceptance, she said. The goal is to mainstream the children into regular classrooms by third grade.

        The oral school is one more option for parents of deaf children in the Tristate. St. Rita School for the Deaf in Evendale embraces total communication, including sign language and oral education, but sign is used most often.

        “For the majority of students, the more you can give them in the way of alternative methods of communication the better off they'll be,” St. Rita Executive Director Greg Ernst said. “We're currently looking at (oral education) as a complement to sign.”

        Tracey Garriga of Liberty Township sent 5-year-old son Jake to St. Rita, where he learned speech and sign language for one year. His speech continued to develop, and he dropped sign. Jake now attends the Ohio Valley Oral School.

        “He's got beautiful speech,” Mrs. Garriga said. “We have followed his lead. He has chosen speech as his way of communicating. With us, it's been the best of both worlds.”

Parents wanted more

               For three years, Tristate parents worked to establish the Ohio Valley Oral School, a chartered private school. While their children received weekly speech therapy or were enrolled in early intervention programs at local school districts, these parents wanted more.

        Mr. Gartner, of Anderson Township; Steve Burns of Miami Heights; and Bob Murphy of Delhi Township are known as the school's “founding fathers.” They were so intent on oral education for their daughters that they decided they'd start a school here or move to a city with an oral school. They are now reaping the benefits of their work.

        Before 4-year-old Courtney Burns attended this school, she wasn't interested in hearing, Mr. Burns said. She didn't care when her cochlear implant battery wore out. Now, she wants it changed immediately. “She wants to hear.”

        Mr. Murphy's daughter, Chrissie, 7, attended the Moog Center for Deaf Education in St. Louis last year. His wife, Kathy, moved there with Chrissie.

        When Chrissie pointed to something, he used to get it for her. Now, he tells her to say it in a sentence. Pointing at the juice evolved into “juice,” and then, “I want some juice, please.”

        These fathers think life will be better for their daughters if they can talk in a hearing world.

        “If you go into a room of several hundred people, how many people would be able to communicate with sign?” Mr. Burns said. “I wanted to be able to talk on the phone and say, "How was your day?' I can talk on the phone to her now.”

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