About halfway through a tour of Northview High School and its Deaf & Hard of Hearing Program, junior Bozena Sneller asked state Superintendent Brian Whiston if there was any sign language he’d like to learn. Whiston said his daughter, a social worker, had taught him some.
“I’m learning,” Whiston said. Replied Bozena with a grin, “I feel ya. I’m learning too.”
Kent County families with deaf or hard of hearing children have a choice of two programs.
Northview’s Deaf & Hard of Hearing Program employs a Total Communication philosophy, helping students access language through both speech and signing.
The Grand Rapids Oral Deaf Program, housed at Ken-O-Sha Elementary School, employs an auditory/oral approach where students develop listening skills without using sign language. Both serve children from birth to age 26.
She was one of about a dozen students in Northview’s D/HH program who showed Whiston around the school recently. As part of his regular visits to schools statewide, Whiston saw what both the high school and West Oakview Elementary offer students through Northview’s Total Communication approach. Serving more than 65 students from all 20 Kent ISD districts, it teaches students to communicate using both speech and American Sign Language.
Whiston liked what he saw. He observed classrooms where D/HH students worked side by side with general-education students, and met with parents who praised how thoroughly embraced and supported their children are.
“What you saw here today is a model program,” Whiston said after his two-hour visit. “I certainly know now if there are other programs that are struggling, they should come see and hear from these parents.”
Whiston also met briefly with Northview Superintendent Scott Korpak and school board members, who picked his brain on state-mandated testing, funding and other issues.
♥‘Just the Kids in the Class’
The late-April visit was one of about 300 Whiston hopes that he and state education department heads will make to local districts. He said he will compile an online data bank of “promising practices” districts can learn from, as part of his plan to make Michigan a top 10 education state within 10 years.
A practice he said he’d like to share from Northview is how well students who are deaf or hard of hearing are integrated into mainstream classrooms. Program Supervisor Trish Lopucki showed him classrooms where one or two D/HH students fully participated with the help of an interpreter and teacher microphones that connect to their cochlear implants or hearing aids.
In a fourth-grade class, Aaron Miller formed geometric angles called out by the teacher alongside his general-education peers. Whiston said the schools should use this “push-in” approach as much as possible, because “it keeps them in the learning atmosphere” and fosters an inclusive school culture. “All the kids in the class are just the kids in the class,” he said. “That’s the way it ought to be.”
At the high school, he visited a class where students can get individualized help in understanding academic material taught in essentially a foreign language, Lopucki said. Whiston also popped into classes where general-education students are taking American Sign Language as their foreign language.
Bozena Sneller, a chatty student with blue-streaked hair, praised how supportive the staff has been as she has learned to sign since middle school. “They don’t judge you,” Bozena said. “Just because we’re deaf doesn’t mean we can’t do what other people do.”
Parents Give High Praise
After the tour, Whiston met with West Oakview parents who told of how much support their children have gotten from teachers, and how well they get along with fellow students.
“Whether they are deaf or not, this school treats all kids the same,” said Kelly Glover, mother of kindergartner Meghan.
“The program focuses on the whole child, and the potential that child has,” added Jessica Miller, mother of fourth-grader Aaron and first-grader Reagan. “They don’t say, ‘You’re deaf so we’re not going to push you.’”
Lopucki later told Whiston that giving students equal access to learning with needed support is central to the D/HH program.
“Yes, there are differences,” she said. “But our point is to make them feel valued and loved, and then they can conquer the world.”