By Vivian Miezianko
Northwest Asian Weekly
When Lisa Spencer and her husband Art adopted their son Nathan three years ago from China at 6 and 1/2, the new family had language challenges that most foreign adoptee families don’t face.
Nathan is profoundly deaf and has cochlear implants.
However, a school in Shoreline has helped the Spencers and other families with deaf children bridge that language and hearing gap.
The Northwest School for Hearing-Impaired Children is the only preschool-through-eighth grade private school in Washington state dedicated to children with hearing loss, according to the school’s website. The diverse student body of 40 includes students from China, Korea, and Japan, as well as Hispanic students.
Most of the students attend free of charge because local school districts contract with the school for special education services.
The public preschool that Nathan attended before attending the Northwest School for Hearing-Impaired Children did not address the family’s needs, said his mother, Lisa Spencer.
While Nathan learned American Sign Language in the other school, his hearing parents couldn’t communicate with him.
“In the public school, he used American Sign Language. He didn’t communicate with us at all. He didn’t even sign his name. … He learned to play games, but he couldn’t read,” she said. “After he switched to Northwest, within a month and a half, he was reading.”
At Northwest School for Hearing-Impaired Children, the program focuses on spoken communication with simultaneous Signing Exact English, in which speakers use their hands to sign every word of what is spoken, including the grammatical structure. This differs from American Sign Language, which has its own grammatical structure separate from English.
According to the school, Signing Exact English helps children make sense of the auditory input provided by their hearing aids or cochlear implants by visually linking sound to meaning and social communication. This is essential for students to achieve academic English language proficiency, according to the school.
“We are the only school of our kind in the country. … No other school in the country does that,” said Barbara Luetke, the school’s outreach and literacy coordinator.
Most of the school’s Asian students are adopted from China, and the school honored their heritage several years ago with Asian Education Day, which included art, games, and activities from Korea, China, and Japan, according to Leutke.
The school also has teachers who speak with Spanish and English signs for bilingual families, said Leutke, whose own two grown daughters are also deaf.
Lisa Spencer said her family noticed a difference when Nathan switched schools.
“Everybody hard of hearing in the public school has a different way to communicate: some sign, some speak…. At the Northwest, the communication is consistent. Everybody signs and speaks at the same time. … It’s a total communication for him. Nathan is doing amazing. He’s at grade level — as in a normal school,” Spencer said.
According to Spencer, Nathan skipped kindergarten and went straight from preschool to first grade and is gifted at math, though he still struggles a little in communication.
Parents Lori and Glen Cook, whose eight-year-old daughter, Norah, is starting her third year at the school, said that the program has made a huge difference for their family after they adopted her from China.
“When we adopted Norah, she was almost four and she had no language at all. She didn’t sign, didn’t speak. We knew we had to find a program that is very intensive to help her develop her language skill.”
At Norah’s first school, in Arkansas, she had no friends with the same language level, Lori Cook said.
“We were extremely worried about her emotional, psychological development because there were no children to play with,” Cook said. “Now she’s doing amazing at school.” (end)
Northwest School for Hearing-Impaired Children is located in Shoreline. For more information, visit: www.northwestschool.com.
Vivian Miezianko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.