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Learning To Listen 

One preschool offers HOPE for kids who have high-tech hearing aids

click to enlarge Jennie Wheaton reads to 4-year-old Santiago at the HOPE school. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Jennie Wheaton reads to 4-year-old Santiago at the HOPE school.

Santiago Acosta watches his mother across the table from behind the lenses of his neon green eyeglasses. He scoots slowly down the table — slow enough not to garner any attention — with his cup of macaroni and cheese. His eyes are on her as he attempts to sit under the table with his lunch.

“Santi,” she says, freezing him before he can get to the ground.

“We don’t eat on the floor — on the table,” she says.

He hears her and slowly moves upward, settling to eat on the chair instead. Sandra Acosta smiles at him. “OK, that’s fine.”

By watching Santiago today, you wouldn’t realize that he has significant hearing loss, save for the small BAHA (Bone-Anchored Hearing Aid) poking out from beneath his dark hair. You wouldn’t know from listening to him speak in both Spanish and English that he couldn’t talk at all when he came to HOPE School (Hearing Oral Program of Excellence). Or that when he started at HOPE that he had severe paralysis. Today he’s running around like any other 4-year-old boy — smiling, laughing, discovering something with every step.

He’s doing all of that — and something else that Sandra Acosta and her husband thought their son might never do: Santiago is listening.

“When you have a hard-of-hearing child and they have a hearing aid of any kind, you need to teach them to listen,” Sandra Acosta says. “That’s not something that comes out natural.”

A private nonprofit tucked into the Health Sciences Building on the Riverpoint Campus, HOPE School looks and feels like any other preschool: There are the caterpillars in one corner, tiny little chairs all about, colored bins of books and crayons in every line of sight. It’s a place that is supported by both Eastern Washington and Washington State University, which donate classrooms, playground space and technical support. In exchange, grad students from EWU’s Communication Disorders program and WSU’s Speech and Hearing Sciences can complete their clinical experience there. And HOPE School is one of only three schools in the Northwest devoted to teaching children with hearing loss how to speak and listen like other children.

Sandra Acosta believes that the progress that her son has made is directly linked to HOPE.

“We didn’t want Santiago to become an insulated child,” Acosta says. “We wanted him to be part of the world. Thinking that he would be just a signer would be insulating him.”

Unlike traditional deaf classrooms, there is no sign language happening here; children at the HOPE School are discouraged from signing, in fact. It’s all part of an educational practice called Auditory-Oral education.

“Hearing loss is not about the ears — it’s about the brain,” says Jan Johnston, board president of HOPE School and an Auditory Verbal Therapist.

Johnston emphasizes that cochlear implants, hearing aids and BAHA devices don’t just help deaf people hear — they help their brains develop by stimulating auditory brain centers that wouldn’t get much action otherwise. If this stimulation is done early enough, children with hearing loss can remain in step with normal-hearing children — who, she says, are “language experts” by age 4.

“The mission of the HOPE School is to provide a developmental language program based on auditory-learning brain development research and each individual child’s needs,” she says. “If we miss this window of neural development, the child will never reach his/her full potential to be a listening and spoken language expert.” 

Children who attend HOPE are in classes with no more than six or seven other kids — usually two of whom are normally hearing children, or “hearing models.”

“If you have your child in a deaf or hard-of-hearing classroom, all of those kids are struggling with their hearing. [At HOPE School] the kids who are deaf or hard-of-hearing have the benefit of a good role model in typically developing speech. They have something to model their own speech by,” says Kim Schafer, community outreach coordinator for HOPE and a parent of a child with hearing loss.

By being exposed to the speech and hearing of their peers — plus almost one-on-one attention with graduate students and preschool teachers — HOPE kids are, in a way, getting double the education.

Desiree Swenson, mother of Danyel — a giggling 4-year-old with pink hearing aids tucked behind each ear — says that HOPE does much more than just educate children.

“I can watch how they interact with her,” she says from one of the school’s one-way mirrored observation rooms. “It really taught me how to teach her to listen and respond and set a bar that I wanted her to reach at home.”

“When we started coming here, there was a huge support group with the other parents. I didn’t know any other parents with kids with hearing loss,” Swenson says.

And because of the support that they get from HOPE School, Swenson and Acosta agree that their children’s hearing loss seems so much less scary than it did when they initially found out.

“It’s not easy to have a child with anything — anything,” Acosta says. “But every weakness comes with its strength. [These kids] are hard workers. They are stronger.”

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