The River School—tucked along a tree-lined street in Washington, D.C.’s Northwest quadrant, alongside the Potomac River—specializes in the oral education of young children with hearing loss. But unlike other programs that silo and segregate deaf children from their typically hearing peers, the private school has developed an inclusive, mutually beneficial program that urges literacy and speech skills in both sets of students at the same time.
The ASHA Leader recently spent a sunny spring morning at the school. Here’s who we met and what they do.
On the other side
Jennie Massad has always had a personal connection to her job.
The preschool teacher wears a hearing aid for her moderate-to-severe hearing loss—an instant link to her students who also have aids or cochlear implants. But after the birth of her daughter, Amelia, and the diagnosis of Amelia’s hearing loss, Massad gained another connection to the River School—as a parent.
Massad’s worked at the school for eight years and appreciates the staff’s focus on the students and serving their needs. “[Amelia’s] teachers are aware of pushing language a little bit more and exposing her more,” Massad says, “where in the regular daycare, they’d be aware of it, but they may have a lot of other kids and it’s just not the top priority.”
With 11-month-old Amelia in the school’s infant program down the hall from her own classroom, Massad attends her daughter’s once-a-week treatment sessions, typical of most students with hearing loss. (Children 18 months or older participate in classroom programs, while the school takes babies as young as 6 weeks into its daycare.)
The school serves about 230 students—39 of whom have a hearing loss, according to Julie Verhoff, River’s audiology director—and employs a team of specialists to educate them. Each class includes a dedicated SLP to assist general educators like Massad, while audiologists offer support by troubleshooting issues with assistive technology. A handful of psychologists, therapists and other specialists fill out other offices.
And while it’s still a long way off for Amelia, students who complete third grade—the highest level of instruction offered at the River School—flow into mainstream public or private schools in the area, typically with ease.
Sounding it out with ‘Mouth Time’
On the April weekday morning of our visit, Fiacre Douglas sits on a carpeted floor, encouraging students to blow cocoa powder into the air.
Douglas is considerably older than your typical second-year speech-language pathology graduate student, but his enthusiasm for this new path shows in his interactions with students. As a student clinician at the River School this semester (the school calls him an intern), he’s been supervised by Samantha Wasilus—one of the school’s SLPs—and enjoys hands-on experiences in the classroom.
The cocoa powder—or “dino dust,” as Douglas and Wasilus call it to fit their current “back in time” theme—is one of today’s Mouth Time tools. Mouth Time, a River School innovation, takes place for 15 minutes a day in each class to help students develop literacy skills.
Sitting cross-legged in a semi-circle, the kids practice making a “ch” sound by placing their dino-dust–covered palms up to their lips. Each successful production receives a chocolate-y, chalky explosion as reward, followed by squeals of delight (and a meticulous lick of the hand for leftover specks). Later in the quick productive session, the children sound out words using symbols written on “dinosaur eggs.”
“What’s great about Mouth Time is that the kids all learn these symbols for the shape of their mouth, and how the words are formed, before they actually learn what the letters look like,” says Douglas, who recently completed his clinical placement and earned his master’s degree from George Washington University. “For the kids who have special needs for hearing, we’re making sure they’re hearing the word, they’re understanding the word and they’re learning it—as well as the other kids who don’t have those issues.”
Haley Blum is a writer/editor for The ASHA Leader. firstname.lastname@example.org.