Oralingua School for the Hearing Impaired in Whittier, Calif, is dedicated to teaching hard-of-hearing to profoundly deaf children communication through speech.

The first thing one is likely to hear when entering Oralingua School for the Hearing Impaired is not silence—it is music.

Millie Sagastegni, assistant teacher (left), reads to a group of preschoolers.

This seemingly surreal juxtaposition, music in a school filled with hearing-impaired children, is a hallmark of the aural/oral education offered at the Whittier, Calif-based Oralingua. All of the students at the day school, many of whom have been attending the school since the first weeks of their lives, are moderately to profoundly deaf. But instead of being taught sign language and lip reading as in the more familiar total communication system, these children are taught—with the help of hearing aids and cochlear implants—how to use their remaining hearing to listen and to speak. “We have children who come from signing programs and we don’t say to them you can’t sign…we just keep talking, and they stop signing and they learn to start talking,” says Etta Fisher, EdD, executive director of Oralingua. “If you keep expectations high, then kids are remarkable; they rise to the occasion and follow through. And the parents are amazed. We’ve had some parents say, ‘I was just desperate, I wanted you to teach them to talk, [now] would you please tell them to be quiet?’” The goal with every student is to have them leave Oralingua for mainstreaming into their local school by the time they are in third grade, if not sooner.

High Expectations
Expectations are kept very high at Oralingua. Classes are small, typically numbering five children, with a teacher, assistant teacher, and parent volunteer keeping a close watch on progress and behavior. The student body currently hovers around 68, but Fisher expects that number to increase to about 70 by the end of the 2001-2002 school year. The school’s staff of 26 includes nine teachers.

pe02.jpg (10548 bytes)Kay Schneider teaches a class attended by both hearing and hearing-impaired children.

In the preschool classes, hearing children are also in attendance, and, at first glance, it is difficult to tell the hearing children from the hearing-impaired ones. Like their hearing counterparts, the students chatter away, offering opinions and answers to their teacher’s questions. And they sing. However, on closer inspection, there are differences. “I think the first thing that jumps right out at you is the language level,” says Jane Freutel, a teacher who has been at Oralingua for 27 years. “The kids with normal hearing have far more sophisticated language than the children in my class, though I’m very happy with what they’re doing and I’m hopeful they’ll catch up someday. Right now, they’re still pretty far behind in terms of vocabulary and language structure. However, we work really hard to make our classrooms as normal as possible. We especially work on the issue of normal behavior. We have very high standards for our kids. We expect them to be kids and do things that children do—get in trouble and make messes, but in terms of [paying attention], interacting with people on their own, taking the initiative to talk to people, and clarifying when they don’t understand things—we expect them to be responsible for all of that themselves. We do a lot of modeling for them and [nudging] them so they take advantage of those opportunities.”

The hearing children give Freutel and her other teachers a reality check. “When we have hearing kids…we use them to remind ourselves all the time what normal is—normal behavior good, bad and ugly; normal language and speech; normal mistakes,” she says. “We love having those kids here because it really helps us a lot.”

The other, striking difference between a hearing classroom and an Oralingua classroom is the emphasis on the aural. Teachers place their hands over their mouths while talking and assistant teachers repeat phrases close to students’ ears but out of sight, forcing them to focus on listening. And the students must at least approximate the answer before the teacher moves on, and then the phrase is repeated again to reinforce it. “We are continually focusing on the auditory,” says Traci Nolin, the school’s clinical audiologist. “Listening is like any other skill you have to practice over and over again. We never let a kid just walk by—[we say,] ‘Hi, how are you today, what are you doing?—we’re constantly bombarding them with that, and that’s what we want the families to do at home.”

The Goal Remains the Same
Although the goal of the Oralingua system has not changed in 32 years, the program has. “The most wonderful thing about this program is that it keeps evolving and we keep learning,” says Fisher. “The day we think we know it all, we might as well close the doors, because everyday we learn something different. Our parents teach us new things, our children teach us new things, and our teachers are very innovative.”

pe03.jpg (9571 bytes)Teacher Nina Risinger conducts a class of kindergarten-aged children.

Freutel adds that the faculty monitor changes in teaching methods in hearing classrooms, integrating them into the program when they are appropriate.

And in addition to changes in methodology, there have been changes in technology as well. About two thirds of this year’s students have cochlear implants, which gives them the full spectrum of sound.

Every hearing-impaired child at Oralingua has either a cochlear implant or a hearing aid. The first thing Nolin does every morning is make the rounds of the classrooms checking that batteries and equipment are working properly. The Oralingua teachers also use a sound field system to even out the sound, eliminating the need for the already technologically laden students to wear any additional equipment.

The speed at which hearing aid and cochlear technology is improving is sometimes a double-edged sword. “I tell parents that the good news about implants is that they are constantly evolving, the technology is moving faster than we can talk about it,” says Nolin. “The bad news about implants is that the technology is constantly evolving. The device you implanted in your child’s head 2 months ago is not obsolete, but there’s a better one out there.”

pe04.jpg (8212 bytes)Clinical audiologist Traci Nolan sings a song to a hearing-impaired infant.

With all the emphasis on hard work and learning, which leaves both children and teachers spent at the end of the day, fun is not forgotten. “These are little kids and they’re going to be in school settings for a long, long time and we want their activities to be fun,” says Freutel. “We want them to come to school eager every day. We try really hard to make sure they’re well behaved, they’re attentive and all that, but they’re also having fun.” And sprinkled in these moments of fun is hidden reinforcement. For instance, in one of the classes, children cannot leave for recess until they tell the assistant teacher the password of the day.

Parent Ryan Newman says that her 6-year-old son Reid has always been eager to go to school. Reid has been commuting to Oralingua from Pasadena for 4 years and was enrolled at the school only partly because of the aural program. “I think what makes a huge difference in this program is…they teach the kids self-discipline,” she says. “The reality is that for my son, no matter how good his aided hearing, it’s always going to be more difficult [for him] than a hearing kid, and he has to have that internal self-control to say, ‘The rest of the class can fool around a little, but I have to sit and listen, because otherwise, I won’t get it.’ I don’t think there’s a place like this anywhere in the country that teaches the kids that self-control. They teach them listening but through listening they learn self-control.”

Near-universal infant hearing screening can now identify deafness almost at birth, so the age of Oralingua’s students has dropped from children who were, in the beginning, 5 or 6 years old to children just a few weeks old. This early intervention is a key to successfully teaching a child to hear and speak, says Fisher.

FisherOralingua’s executive director, Etta Fisher, EdD, encourages parent participation.

Oralingua families come from all socioeconomic backgrounds ranging from those receiving Aid to Dependent Children to those able to pay the $23,000 tuition out of pocket. Many of the students receive scholarships. Students come from all over Southern California and as far away as India, Japan, and the United Arab Emirates. The basic criterion for attendance is that deafness has to be the major handicap. “Before they come, we do a week’s assessment to determine language level, listening level, cognitive levels, and social interaction levels, and also we [have] an interview with the family,” says Fisher. “They come here for a week, so we’re able to evaluate all of that with tests, observation, and interaction both in the classroom and outside of the classroom. Then we collect all of that data, sit down with a team here, and discuss whether we feel this program is going to benefit this child and his family.”

Parents Play an Active Role
It is not just the hearing-impaired child that joins Oralingua. Parents have to take an active part in their child’s life at the school. “It is so crucial that our program does not fully work unless we have parent participation,” says Fisher.

This means that parents have to continue lessons at home by talking to their children. “We really try to encourage language to be as natural as possible; we’re aware of what the natural development of language is and how hearing parents interact with hearing children,” says Kay Schneider, Oralingua’s supervisor of itinerant services and curriculum coordinator. “Probably the first big job is to get them to continue to [talk to their children].”

In addition to continuing the lessons at home, parents also help in the classroom. Throughout the week, each child sees their parent in the classroom for a full day to help the teacher and assistant teacher. “The purpose for having them there for the full day is to see how we model language for the children, our expectations of them, how they can interact with them after the school day is over, and then just to be able to follow through,” says Fisher. “They attend regular classes for the day and then when the children go out for speech and language services, they follow, so they know every facet of the day.”

On a recent day, while their children played noisily on the playground, parents became students themselves attending a workshop where they discussed everything from the mechanical requirements of speech to how to control their child’s speaking volume with one of the school’s speech pathologists. But the familial commitment does not stop with helping in the classroom and attending classes.

Parents must also commit to the school’s fund-raising efforts. This year the parent association will raise $100,000. Each parent is responsible for raising about $1,250 either directly, such as by making fund-raising phone calls, or indirectly, such as by stuffing envelopes. Parents receive virtual dollar credits during fund-raising efforts, which can be used to offset tuition costs.

With all the noise generated by its tiny students, few of the school’s Whittier neighbors know that the Spanish-style St Matthias Episcopal Church on the corner of Washington and Wardman is the home of a hearing-impaired school. This is something Elizabeth A. Haig, the school’s director of development, has been trying to change for the last 5 years.

While the parents hold sales drives and bowlathons, Haig is going out to the community addressing Rotary Club and Sertoma meetings, sending press releases to the local media, and using the Internet to raise awareness of the school and raise money. She also oversees the school’s two large fund-raising events—its annual gala and golf tournament—and writes grants for corporate and foundation money.

She says about half of the grant applications receive answers. “I always get them with the fact that we don’t use sign language or lip reading,” says Haig.

Measuring Success
Oralingua’s success is not a measure of the amount of dollars it raises, but of the number of children it successfully mainstreams into local schools. Fisher says that the program has an 87% success rate and that the children now tend to leave the program sooner than the third grade mark established when the school opened its doors in September 1969.

The transitioning student begins the mainstreaming process with a trial run in a local school, either near Oralingua at a Whittier public school or, if an Oralingua teacher lives in their community, at their local school. Usually the process is gradual with the student at first attending one or two class periods, with an Oralingua teacher at their side.

Because Oralingua began mainstreaming students before it was popular, the school has built strong relationships with dozens of school districts in Southern California, making the transition process a smooth one. One vestige of the student’s Oralingua experience follows them into public school: the sound field system. “It’s something we always recommend and generally provide,” says Nolin. “The sound field systems were originally developed for normal hearing kids with fluctuating hearing loss due to middle ear infection, so often in mainstream classrooms we’ll provide a personal sound field, and [the Oralingua students] find that the [normal hearing] kids love it. We find it’s a really wonderful introduction to the whole hearing-impaired world.”

But the success of the transition—the underlying goal of Oralingua’s system—is not just a matter of working with school districts and providing sound field devices. “Mainstreaming begins at home—what opportunities you are providing in just the regular day-to-day environment within the family, within the community, within the church, within Scouts, within sports,” says Fisher.

Reid Newman’s mother says that she expects her son to leave Oralingua and enter a Pasadena public school next year. She says she will be happy to leave behind the 50-minute daily commute, but not Oralingua. “I think this is probably going to be in some way his best academic experience,” she says. “They can meet all of his needs here, and going out into the world is going to be harder but he has to do it at some point. That was the goal [from] the beginning.”

But Reid is not the first or the last student who will find it hard to leave Oralingua. The school maintains an alumni association and former students, many of them now bringing their own children, make frequent return trips to visit with Fisher.

Fisher speaks of her former students with the same pride as a parent listing off the Eagle Scout badges, the speech prizes, the university scholarships and fellowships awarded, and the college graduations of a dozen children in quick succession. And even if these students are long grown, their primary school faces, frozen in time, cover the back two walls of Fisher’s office, surrounding her with a living 32-year visual record of Oralingua’s success.

Chris Wolski is associate editor of Hearing Products Report.