Canton school helps hearing-impaired kids make big strides
Some preteens drive their parents nuts when they talk on the phone every night. But Elena Perlin of Stoughton can’t get enough of hearing her 12-year-old chatter away.
Ten years ago, she wasn’t sure if her daughter Julia would ever speak. A month shy of her second birthday, doctors diagnosed Julia as profoundly deaf.
“I was a musician, and I sang to her every night. I didn’t know if she would ever hear me,” Perlin said. “I just wanted her to hear me say, ‘I love you,’ and hear her say it back.”
Today, Julia speaks perfectly and is even learning Hebrew as a second language at a Jewish day school. In fourth grade, she learned to play the saxophone. And in kindergarten and first grade, she tested at above her grade level in reading.
Julia’s achievements are due to cochlear implants in both ears, but her mother also strongly credits her early education at the Clarke School East.
The Canton school is one of four schools on the East Coast affiliated with the Northampton-based Clarke School for the Deaf and Center for Oral Education, founded in 1867. The satellite campuses – which are also in New York City, Philadelphia and Jacksonville – offer early intervention, preschool and kindergarten programs that focus on developing oral communication skills, as opposed to sign language.
Students at the Clarke School have been diagnosed with moderate to severe hearing loss. They may use hearing aids, have one or two cochlear implants or be preparing for implant surgery.
In the words of Cara Jordan, director of Clarke School East, the children first learn how to listen, then how to listen to learn.
“Our goal is for kids to become effective communicators,” Jordan said. “If they sign to us, we don’t ignore it. But we don’t sign back.”
That policy made Perlin apprehensive because she had initially enrolled Julia in a sign language program.
Today, babies can be diagnosed with deafness at birth through a newborn screening test. But that wasn’t the case with Julia, whose delayed development was linked to her hearing much later.
“My first priority was to get language into her,” Perlin said. “I couldn’t waste any time because I knew we had already lost a big window of opportunity.”
But even as her toddler learned to sign, Perlin noticed that she was babbling with every sign she made. She sensed that her daughter wanted to talk, so she met with Jordan and observed classes at Clarke School East.
The school’s goal is to enable children with hearing loss to “mainstream” into regular first-grade classes.
That’s what Mary Taffe-Smith is planning for her 5-year-old son, Brendan, who is in Clarke’s kindergarten program.
“I don’t even think he’s going to require speech therapy,” Taffe-Smith said.
Brendan – who has had hearing aids since he was 4 months old – will be starting at the Montclair School in Quincy in September.
“He was quite delayed, by about 8 or 9 months,” Taffe-Smith said. “But he’s caught up. It’s amazing.”
Some students leave Clarke and fully integrate into classes elsewhere, others continue to visit the school for support services, and still others utilize classroom aides. In some cases, the Clarke school has even arranged for team teaching by sending an instructor certified in deaf education to a child’s regular classroom.
“It’s completely driven by the individual needs of the children,” Jordan said.
She noted that even children who perform well in elementary school may require extra help in later grades. Less familiar vocabulary can make lessons in science and history more challenging.
“A hearing child always had access to spoken language,” Jordan said. “They hear it all the time around them.”
Hearing aids and cochlear implants are not corrective devices in the same way a pair of glasses enables a person to see properly. They make sound more accessible, but not louder or clearer.
Even at age 12, Julia still needs to practice some words, Perlin said.
When her daughter started in the Clarke program at age 3, Perlin was told that Julia had the least understandable speech. But today, even doctors tell her they are shocked to hear how well Julia talks.
And to hear her talk on the phone, “I never take that for granted,” Perlin said, holding back tears. “...She has surpassed my expectations.”
Nancy Reardon may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.