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ODU Oral Preschool Program First of Its Kind in State

The Virginia Department of Education recently granted Old Dominion University $140,000 to develop an innovative preschool program to help children with severe hearing impairments improve their hearing and speaking abilities. This program will be the first of its kind in Virginia.

The ODU Oral Preschool Program is being developed with three goals: 1) to teach children ages 2-5 with hearing aids and cochlear implants to develop spoken language through hearing; 2) to train future professionals on how to teach these children; and 3) to serve as a means for researching this new field.

With the grant money, ODU has just finished renovating a classroom to block out the external noise from busy nearby Hampton Boulevard. Children who are learning to convert the sounds their implants pick up into hearing and speech need a room that will keep noise from filtering in.

The next stage of development is to formulate the policies and procedures that will help run the program. When building a program from scratch, everything must be considered, from the children's transportation to the subject matter that will be covered in the classroom.

"There is no 'how to build an oral preschool' manual," said Joe Sever, an ODU professor and audiologist. Instead, the Oral Preschool Program team has chosen professionals with expertise in the program's related fields to form an advisory board that will help them make these decisions, he explained.

The goal is to start the program by the end of the year. After it has been open for a year, the program will double as a classroom and a center to train future professionals, said Philip Langlais, ODU's vice provost for graduate studies and research.

"There are only a handful of such programs in the United States; we are the only one in Virginia," said Langlais.

The Oral Preschool Program actually has its roots in a larger, umbrella group: the Coalition for Hearing Education and Research (CHEAR). "If it hadn't been for CHEAR, this whole thing wouldn't have happened," said Joe Sever, an audiology professor at ODU and team leader for the Oral Preschool Program.

CHEAR was founded by Dr. Barry Strasnick, lead surgeon and chairman of head and neck surgery (otolaryngology) at Norfolk's Eastern Virginia Medical School. "What prompted me is that I saw a vast need for the quality-of-life improvements for individuals with severe hearing impairments," he said.

Langlais said ODU and EVMS had been looking at this program since the middle of last year, trying to decide how they could take it to the next stage.

"Finally, we said, maybe we can do one part well. So we decided to develop the current program and place it at ODU's Darden College of education," Langlais said. "The rest was putting together the right team."

That team includes ODU's Nick Bountress, the chair of speech and language pathology, and Sever, associate professor of early childhood speech-language pathology and special education. "My role was to put the team together, do the proposals and get the thing going. It's now going," said Langlais.

Though Strasnick said it was difficult to get people to think of hearing impairment as a pressing health problem, "If you ask people if they know people who are hearing impaired, virtually everybody knows someone." He also noted that, in addition to experiencing difficulty in communication, people with hearing disorders sometimes sustain injuries because their balance is affected.

In December 2007, there were 1,548 students attending Virginia public schools who received special services because of hearing loss, according to the Virginia Department of Education. Last year, through Virginia's Newborn Hearing Screening Program, 248 infants with hearing loss were detected statewide.

The development and widespread use of technology like cochlear implants has made it possible for children who were born deaf or with severe hearing impairments to detect noise and use it to speak. Once the implant is in, however, patients must be trained so that they can distinguish between noises and learn to convert sounds into language they can use. This is why it is important that the classroom at ODU undergo renovations.

"A big chunk of the modifications we're doing to the room is to make the room quieter. A quiet environment is important," said Sever.

Extra glass in the windows, added material to the walls, thicker doors and quieter heating and air conditioning systems are some of the changes that were made to the oral preschool classroom. In addition, the classroom has been equipped with a speaker system that will wirelessly link to a microphone worn by the teacher. This will ensure that the volume and quality of the teacher's voice do not change as he or she moves around the classroom.

Once children are able to process the sounds their implants pick up and convert them into speech, the goal is for them to attend public schools either without receiving special education services or receiving less future services. For the children, this means a greater opportunity to complete their schooling and get better jobs. For the state, it means a significant savings. Currently, it costs $350,000 to provide special education services to a child from kindergarten through high school.

"We know from our studies that we have to intervene between ages 2-6 if we want to change the direction of their social development," said Strasnick.

The continuing phase of this program is to teach the teachers, he added. In the medical field, cochlear implant and hearing aid technology has spread rapidly, but there are not many education resources for these children once the implants are in place.

"If we can create the same kind of models in other parts of the state and support them from ODU, hopefully other states will copy," said Strasnick.

He hopes the program will spread much like how newborn hearing screening has spread to nearly all 50 states mainly in the past eight years.

"If we do this right, by combining the clinical and diagnostic abilities of EVMS with the educational and research abilities of ODU into a partnership, we can dramatically affect the lives of people, " Strasnick said.

This article was posted on: November 17, 2008

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