For more than 90 years, many deaf and hard of hearing students in Lincoln have called Prescott Elementary their school.
But the building’s high ceilings, increasingly crowded classrooms, and major technological advances that improve hearing ability for students with profound hearing loss could change that.
Lincoln Public Schools officials are considering moving the program for deaf and hard of hearing students to Beattie Elementary, 1901 Calvert St., where acoustics are better and enrollment more stable.
“Prescott has been a fantastic partner for the deaf and hard of hearing community, but as we look at the changing needs of students, we needed to look at changes in acoustics and how best to serve students,” said said Jenny Fundus, director of special education at LPS. .
LPS officials have not made a final decision, Fundus said, but hope to do so soon so planning can begin moving the program to fall 2015. LPS officials will meet with parents Thursday in Beattie to discuss of the recommendation.
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Prescott, 1930 S. 20th St., now serves 11 school-aged children and four preschoolers who are deaf or hard of hearing, Fundus said. The school has two full-time teachers and four interpreters who work with these students.
Irving Middle School and Southeast High School also have programs for students with hearing loss, and there are no plans to change those locations, Fundus said.
At the basic level, advances in technology have fueled the need for better acoustics – and a different building.
“Technology has changed dramatically, and children who previously lacked the ability to hear sounds or speech, now with cochlear implants and better hearing aids, can,” said Faye Doolittle, who teaches LPS students with profound hearing loss since 1980.
Cochlear implants are surgically implanted electronic devices that provide sound sensation to people who are profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing. When very young children receive the implants, it can dramatically improve their reading skills, said LPS audiologist Katie Foster.
But such devices—which allow students to learn more through listening and spoken language—also increase the need for acoustics that minimize background and ambient noise so students can hear instructors better.
And Prescott’s high ceilings aren’t conducive to good acoustics.
Some of the classrooms have been modified — and their ceilings lowered — to improve acoustics, but it’s inconsistent, Doolittle said. And because Prescott is growing — enrollment is up 14% over the past two years — it’s harder to find room for one-on-one instruction.
Beattie, where enrollment is actually down by 10 students this year, has ample room for individual instruction and lower caps.
Foster tested sound levels at Beattie and found that they were much better than at Prescott.
“I was amazed at how quiet the rooms were at Beattie,” she said.
Although the change would directly affect a small number of children, it would mean the end of a long-standing tradition in Prescott.
When Prescott opened in 1922, Lincoln School for the Deaf affiliated with the district and operated its program from the imposing new building.
As the philosophy of Deaf education grew and changed over the years, it did in Prescott.
For many years, deaf education was based on oral listening skills, such as lip reading, Foster said. In the 1970s, the use of sign language became accepted and schools adopted a “total communication” philosophy where students could use whatever communication strategy worked best.
“LPS tries to provide that continuum from totally sign (language) dependent to totally auditory,” Foster said. “Many, many of our students fall somewhere in between.”
Prescott students used to wear devices around their necks that amplified the voice of their teacher, who wore a microphone. That technology is still in use, Foster said, but the student’s device is now the size of a penny.
This history brought with it longstanding traditions in Prescott.
“It’s going to leave a hole for us,” Principal Ruth Ann Wylie said. “That has been our image, but we have developed very strong relationships with the children and their families.”
And hearing students have benefited from the tradition, she says.
For many years, in choir, for example, students learned a song in sign language, a tradition that the school would likely not have the resources to continue if the curriculum changed.
“In that sense, we will share the wealth,” Wylie said. “Their children (in Beattie) will be blessed to have these children in their lives.”
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