In this class, it's good to be a chatterbox

A program at Seven Oaks Elementary serves preschoolers who have cochlear implants.

Published March 13, 2007

WESLEY CHAPEL - It's sharing time in Erin Sizemore's classroom, and Ricky Thors gets to go first.

"Use nice speech when you're telling us about your journal," Sizemore reminds the brown-haired 5-year-old with long eyelashes.

With some prompting, Ricky talks about his dog Louie's encounter with balloons. "He chase them," Ricky says in a quiet voice.

"What else did you do? What did you do with your hair?" Sizemore asks.

"I made haircut," Ricky answers softly. "You got a haircut?" Sizemore corrects him. Ricky nods, and moves back to his seat as the rest of the class discusses Ricky's night.

This might seem mundane in many classrooms. But not in the Talk classroom at Seven Oaks Elementary School, which serves preschoolers who have cochlear implants. Unique in Pasco County schools, Talk aims to improve the youngsters' communication skills enough that they'll be able to participate in regular kindergarten.

Ricky, who barely could hold a full conversation eight months ago, is ready.

"Before this year, he was kind of spacey, in his own little world," says his mom, Christina Thors, a Tampa General Hospital psychologist. "He's got a sense of humor now. He tries to trick me. He's just acting like a normal kid."

Mrs. Thors and her husband, Mike, give as much credit to the Seven Oaks program as they do to what Ricky calls his two "super ears" - small machines that look like complicated hearing aids. The program focuses on children's listening and talking skills as much as their academics.

That focus is critical to the success of people who have cochlear implants, says Nancy Patterson, a rehabilitative audiologist at the University of South Florida Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders.

Before they get the implants, which bypass damaged hair cells in the ear to stimulate the auditory nerves, recipients cannot hear. So if they don't get an implant until they are 13 months old, like Ricky was, they have more than a year's worth of catching up to do.

"It's not like a pacemaker, where the implant is in and everything goes," Patterson explains. "It's the training that matters. ... It takes very intensive programming."

That's where the school system comes in.

Five years ago, Pasco County did not have an education option dedicated to deaf children whose parents had chosen to have them participate in the hearing, rather than the deaf, world. Instead, it had a program that combined sign language with lip reading and speaking.

"We were finding it challenging to meet the needs of all types of kids," says Judy Horvath, supervisor of programs for the deaf and hard of hearing. "We want the entire school to participate in the same philosophy."

But the signing community and speaking community have quite different needs.

"When Seven Oaks opened in 2005, we were able to start a separate classroom and a separate program," Horvath explains.

Sizemore and speech pathologist Kelly Teegardin, who had run a part-time Talk program at Denham Oaks Elementary, moved to the new school and expanded to full time.

The teachers start out small, modeling sounds, talking slowly. They work on expression and reception, knowing that the more children understand, the better they can respond.

"The biggest thing for them when they get into kindergarten ... is they're going to be expected to follow a lot of directions," Sizemore says. "If they're not comprehending things that are going on, they're going to be lost."

You can see the continuum of progress in the classroom.

Nelda Alvarez, who's just 3, follows directions like "Go get your lunch" and "Sit down" with relative ease. But talking about the book Corduroy, though her eyes flicker with recognition, she has trouble saying much.

"Up and down," Nelda repeats, seeing a drawing of an elevator in the book. "Bear!" she shouts when she sees Corduroy. "Baby bear!"

When Sizemore asks why Corduroy is sad, it's the older kids who have ready responses.

"Because his button is lost," Ricky answers.

"Very good," Sizemore says. "You were really listening."

Understanding is part of the program. It's also being understood.

Teegardin takes small groups into a separate room to work on that endeavor. She focuses on the concepts of "same" and "different" one morning with 3-year-old Alan Ramirez and 4-year-old Mark Labolt.

She asks Mark to choose two colored paper mittens from the table. He picks pink ones.

"Are they different?" Teegardin asks.

"Dame," Mark responds.

"Let's get the s out," Teegardin says to the boy, lifting his hand to her mouth and letting him feel what the s feels like against his skin. "Sssssss."

"Sssssame," Mark mimics, smiling knowing that he's got it.

With other groups she works on other tough sounds, such as -sh, -ch and -ed. She also delves into harder concepts like rhyme. Watching some of the 5-year-olds rhyme "cast," "fast" and "mast," pronouncing each correctly, thrills her.

"I get really excited about this," she says of their progress, "because I have children with disabilities at higher grades who cannot do this."

The Thors family, who live in Lutz, is pleased with the progress, too. Mike Thors mentions Ricky's journal to elaborate.

"When he first started, it was a couple of words he would tell us, and we would fill it in," he recalls. "Now it's full sentences that he is telling us, and we are writing them down verbatim."

Christina Thors puts it another way. "He's actually gone up two grade levels in the past six months," she says. "We are so thrilled."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com (813) 909-4614 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505 ext. 4614. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Fast Facts:

How they work

Cochlear implants bypass damaged hair cells in the ear to stimulate the auditory nerves.