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'Her grandmother spoke to her on the phone the other day and said, 'I can't believe it. I understood her!'

May 14, 1987|BETH UYEHARA | Times Staff Writer

There is an elementary school in Whittier so exclusive it has only 37 students and charges $12,000 a year tuition. It attracts its students--as young as 13 months old--from as far away as Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong.

Yet its main goal is to get the children out of its classrooms and into public schools.

This is Oralingua School for the Hearing Impaired Inc., the only facility in Southern California dedicated to teaching the profoundly deaf to hear and speak.

Not to learn sign language or lip reading: That can come later, the school's director says, for those who want it. But to actually learn to use whatever minimal hearing the children may have--assisted by powerful prescription hearing aids--to learn spoken language. To talk to someone they can't see. To use the telephone. To learn to speak normally and sing and shout and whisper.

To achieve all this, the children have to start early--first grade may be too late. There's a critical period of language development in early childhood that lasts from birth only to age 3, school director Etta Fisher said. If children aren't exposed to spoken language during these years, they rarely catch up.

Only 16 schools in the nation use the same spoken-language approach, Fisher said. The method requires intensive work with the children and a low teacher-student ratio. At Oralingua, there are seven teachers for 37 students. It is an expensive process.

However, despite the high tuition, it is not a rich kids' school. Most of the students are on scholarships, including some whose parents are on welfare. Only one or two families of current students can afford to pay the whole tab, Fisher said. Several times a year, parents stage fund-raisers to help defray the cost.

The most common method of educating deaf children is called "total communication." This is the approach used in Los Angeles County public schools. Total communication teaches children sign language as well as attempting to teach them to listen and speak.

Although total communication may be appropriate for some children, Fisher said, it has two disadvantages. First, by the time children are enrolled in elementary school, it may be too late for them to ever fully comprehend spoken language.

Second, learning spoken language is just plain hard work for deaf children, even for those with a less-than-profound hearing loss. Sign language is much easier to learn and use, Fisher said, so that when children are taught both speech and signing simultaneously, signing quickly takes over. A child who only signs is isolated for life from the hearing community.

Total communication is defended by Dick Lane, who oversees seven county special education sites, including Joshua School for the deaf in Lancaster. It's the best approach for most deaf children, he said. "Our school's philosophy is, 'You give the child all the tools you can,' " he said. "I've seen wonderful things accomplished with total communication."

However, not all children can adapt well to the dual approach. For these children and their families, the results at Oralingua can seem like a miracle.

Eight-year-old Sarah White is such a child. She was "miserable" in the Joshua School program, her mother said.

"Sarah was totally, totally frustrated," Kathleen White said. "You couldn't understand her signs or her speech. She's very intelligent, but she has some visual problems that made it difficult for her to learn signing and speech at the same time."

Although she is starting later than the usual student, Oralingua accepted Sarah into its program two months ago, and the results have been dramatic, her mother said. "Her grandmother spoke to her on the phone the other day and said: 'I can't believe it. I understood her!' "

The school tries to make the difficult learning process fun for the children, 90% of whom are profoundly deaf. "We give them lots and lots of applause and encouragement," Fisher said.

"They have sweet little voices now. By learning early enough, they can keep these voices and learn to speak with natural rhythm and intonation."

For those lucky enough to find their way to Oralingua early, the method works. Two- and 3-year-old deaf children turn around when their names are spoken by someone standing behind them; they eagerly respond "Meow" and "Moooooo," when shown the appropriate animal pictures, and they string words together in sentences like any other children their age.

Older children at Oralingua participate in sing-alongs and make speeches at school assemblies. They carry on voluble conversations with each other and with their teachers. Nine of the 37 students will be "mainstreamed" into regular public school classrooms next semester.

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