Making choices for your child’s education can be complicated; hearing loss certainly adds another dimension to the decision. Since there are many paths to a child’s educational success, how do parents decide which kind of school is right for their family? The first thing to remember, says Dr. Louis Abbate, President and CEO of the Willie Ross School for the Deaf in Massachusetts, is that it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. “The full educational potential of a deaf or hard-of-hearing child can only be supported with an emphasis on the individual needs of the child,” says Abbate.
Atlanta residents Lewis and Melissa Mazo agree. Their son, Alexander, age 6, was diagnosed with severe hearing loss when he was 3 years old. The Mazos carefully considered Alexander’s individual needs when deciding where he should go to school. Lewis advises parents to consider the personality of a child. Is yours a self-starter, or someone who needs supervision?
Melinda Gillinger, a special education consultant and the mother of a profoundly deaf daughter, recommends that parents let their child’s specific needs guide the decision--but that they consider all options before making a decision. “Look at everything,” advises Gillinger, whose daughter, Krysta, is now 21 years old. “You can’t say ‘no’ to something you haven’t seen,” she says. When Gillinger began her career in the field, she was a pioneer in helping parents navigate the educational options available for their deaf or hard-of-hearing children. Now Krysta is a successful young woman taking college courses, and Gillinger’s experience continues to help other families.
Experts—including the families of hard-of-hearing children—agree that researching all of the options is the place to begin. Jason and Ellen Winkler, whose 7-year-old son, Jagger, is profoundly deaf, researched neighborhood schools for months before making a decision. Internet research about school districts will reveal how schools perform on standardized tests and provide some parent evaluations, but don’t stop there. Solicit personal advice and recommendations. Other parents are often happy to share their experiences with others.
Additionally, local chapters of hearing-loss associations such as the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, or a state commission for the deaf and hard of hearing may be able to recommend schools or give educational advice. These associations may also be able to connect you with other families willing to share their experiences with you.
Remain open to all possibilities as you begin your search. The Winklers cast a wide net when they considered their son’s education and, in the end, moved from a small town in Wyoming to the large city of Denver, Colorado, in order to give Jagger more educational options. Jagger’s dad, Jason Winkler, says that choosing a larger city was just step one. “Of course you should put rectangles on the map, based on schools. We moved to that neighborhood for that particular school,” says Winkler.
Abbate recommends parents bring an open attitude with them when they approach a school district they are considering or entering. “Parents should go with a sense of objectivity to their local school department because they have to build a level of trust,” says the school administrator, who welcomes new families to his school for the deaf each year. That trust can open the door to solid communication, as parents then begin to evaluate the whether a school is right for their child’s educational needs.
Whether you’re following the path of public or of private school, evaluating each school—and its teachers and administrators—is a large part of the process. Here are some criteria you might consider:
The process doesn’t end once you’ve found a school for your child. First-grader Alexander Mazo started off at the Atlanta Speech School, but he progressed so quickly that his parents began looking for another school. “He needed to be around speaking children,” says his mom.
Paying attention to how your child is doing in school is just as important as the initial choice of school.
The family settled on a nearby Montessori school, which happened to be the school they were considering before they even learned of Alexander’s hearing loss. With its system of individual responsibility, carpeted classrooms, use of group tables rather than desks, peer-to-peer instruction, and one-on-one teacher-student instruction, the Montessori school turned out to be ideal for Alexander. “It’s the perfect environment for our child,” says Melissa Mazo.
The Winkler family changed Jagger’s school, too, even though they had chosen their home specifically for its neighborhood’s public school. “It was a good fit, but there were 28 kids in the class and that amount of noise and disruption for a deaf child is a lot,” says Ellen Winkler. The noise levels were exhausting him.” The Winklers chose to move Jagger to a private school with only 17 students in a class.
Paying attention to how your child is doing in school is just as important as the initial choice of school. Abbate says that unfortunately, sometimes the decision about which school to choose becomes the end game, and parents might overlook what’s happening in the classroom once the child starts school.
Parents should continue to advocate for their children all the way through the educational process. Continue to press for the best resources available; continue to do research and learn. Technology, philosophy, and therapy are evolving rapidly. Make yourself known at your child’s school and stay in touch with teachers and administrators.
Jagger’s dad, Jason Winkler, says parents should educate themselves by all means available. He suggests parents use the Internet; talk to other parents; talk to health care providers; and attend events, conferences, and gatherings of families. “It’s like a research paper,” he says. “You follow every lead you get. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Continue to push. And the most important thing you can do is expect the most from your child.”
That approach is working for the Winklers. Their son, Jagger, is a happy, well-adjusted 7-year-old who–like so many of his peers—wants to be a paleontologist when he grows up. Evidently, it’s all blue-sky thinking from his perch in first grade.