Sign of the times at Miles
Arizona Daily Star
Jan. 17, 2009


Non-hearing, hearing students learn together

By Rhonda Bodfield


Tucson, Arizona | Published:

In a Midtown primary classroom, a story unfolded through voice and movement.

One teacher read the story out loud, wearing a speaker that amplified her voice. Another teacher signed the words to the students clustered before her.

Small hands, belonging to hearing and non-hearing students alike, molded thoughts into shapes. Afterward, student volunteers came to the front of the class to show new words they learned to sign, such as "embarrassed" and "teacher."

Next door, students were growing garlic. After checking the battery in one student's hearing aid, the teacher asked what a grown plant might look like. While some bet the bulbs would turn into trees, one deaf student had trouble answering. The teacher chided one of his hearing classmates for impatiently signing across the room, "We're waiting for you."

Welcome to Miles Exploratory Learning Center, where visitors would be hard-pressed to know at first glance who can hear and who can't because in this dual-language program, all students learn together7, and are all likely to sign.

One of the local forerunners of integrating the hearing-impaired into general education, the school also is a model that researchers expect will become increasingly commonplace as more children receive early intervention and as more technologies that can compensate for hearing loss, such as cochlear implants, become available.

At Miles, where about 40 of the 300 students have some hearing impairment, there are far more adults than one might see in the average classroom. In the room with the storytelling, for example, there were the two teachers, one of whom is deaf. In the back of the class, an interpreter translated students' questions and comments for the deaf teacher. Another interpreter and an aide worked with children.

Educating this population is complex for many reasons. Whether students should be taught in special schools or immersed into general-education classrooms remains a sensitive topic for debate, although an estimated 75 percent of students with hearing disabilities are in public schools, especially because by law they must be educated in the least-restrictive environment possible.

Some research indicates that as many as 40 percent of students with hearing problems have additional disabilities, and there remains a well-documented achievement gap.

Researchers at the University of Arizona College of Education recently received an $800,000 grant to help train educators on how to work effectively with students with hearing needs.

Shirin Antia, a UA professor of special education, rehabilitation and school psychology, predicted that general-classroom teachers will increasingly need such skills as fewer students enter specialized programs.

"More and more, these students will want to go to their local schools, but they'll still need support," she said. "They don't suddenly become hearing kids."

Antia recently finished a five-year research study on nearly 200 students with hearing loss who are in general education in public schools in Arizona and Colorado.

The study found the group as a whole scored in the low to average range academically. That's good news, Antia said, given that earlier research showed the median reading comprehension score for graduating deaf and hard-of-hearing students is equivalent to that of fourth-grade hearing students. More good news: Research so far on students with implants shows they score more on par with hearing students, Antia said.

Even though her research shows deaf and hard-of-hearing students can be successful in general education, researchers have not yet come up with a recipe for what works. Antia said she understands that can be frustrating.

"We're always looking for a magic bullet in terms of what works, but what we found is there is no single factor that will determine success," she said.

Students who aren't doing well, she said, are generally wrestling with a host of issues. Their hearing loss might have been identified late, for example, or they may have moved around a lot and didn't get consistent service. Or maybe there was a communication glitch among professionals working with the student or between home and school.

On the other hand, students succeed when they get services and go to schools that expect them to function in the regular curriculum and that provide the support to help them do it, she said.

That's something that has evolved over many years at Miles, in the Tucson Unified School District.

Speech therapist Cynthia Drye remembers that when she came to Miles in 1994, deaf children interacted with peers only in physical education classes, if at all.

"They were otherwise completely segregated," she said. "All the kids called them 'the deaf kids.' "

She kept pushing for integration, she said, and teachers initially pushed back, showing her articles indicating that deaf children couldn't perform at grade level. "That was so offensive," said Drye, who has a sister who is deaf.

She went to visit a Southern California public school program that was successfully integrating the two. "I literally bawled," she said. "These kids were functioning at grade level, everyone signed, and it was so normal."

When she returned, Drye kept pushing, and her efforts were rewarded. The program started small, through word of mouth and 16-hour days. Now there's a waiting list.

The program requires flexibility and creativity, Drye said.

"It forces you to teach in ways that are very individualized and very inclusive," she said.

Because an interpreter is always a couple of seconds behind, it's important that teachers pause to allow a deaf child time to participate, rather than just call on the first hand that shoots up, she said. And they have to be sensitive about not asking deaf children to choose between watching what's going up on the whiteboard and watching the interpreter. Teachers also use many visuals, make lists and explain concepts in multiple ways.

It all boils down to good teaching strategies that help all kids, regardless of whether they have disabilities or not.

And, she said, teachers must be prophets of the message that students can do anything. Deaf students at Miles are given the opportunity to play music and dance. They have given Student Council speeches in sign language, too.

Said Drye: "I would never tell a child he or she can't do something."

Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at 806-7754 or at


Miles Exploratory Learning Center, 1400 E. Broadway, was named after Nelson A. Miles, a Union general given some credit for the capture of Geronimo in 1886.

The school was built in 1921 for $38,877.

Miles has a number of unique programs, from dual-language and multi-age classrooms to a strong arts presence. For more information, call 225-2200.

Source: TUSD