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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Language school that provides resources and HOPE to children with hearing disabilities seeing its first graduates

Kami DeFee, 5, raises her hand to answer a question in her preschool class Tuesday at Spokane HOPE Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

When he was 2, Eli Stachofsky and his parents were told he was profoundly deaf.

“Ironically, my mom started comforting the nurse because the nurse started to break down and was feeling a great deal of compassion for my parents,” Stachofsky said. “My mom just felt a great sense of calmness and was really able to comfort the nurse and be like, ‘we’re going to be able to work our way through this.’ ”

The 19-year-old graduated from the Spokane Valley Tech STEM Academy this summer. He was an athlete on the track and field team, wrestled and played football. Academically, Stachofsky excelled and recently got into a premedical program at Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri, where he is double-majoring in biology and chemistry. In seven years, he’ll have his doctorate and hopes to become a family physician.

None of it would have been possible without the Spokane Hearing Oral Program of Excellence, Stachofsky said.

The first preschoolers to attend Spokane HOPE are graduating high school from public school classrooms, a milestone for the language learning school that attempts to build speaking skills for deaf and hard of hearing children, then place them into the mainstream public school system as kindergartners.

The school’s major goal: teach children who are deaf or hard of hearing to listen, speak and succeed in any kindergarten classroom. HOPE sends 97% of its students into kindergarten, said Danette Driscoll, executive director.

“I was able to go into the mainstream public education system with zero aides,” Stachofksy said. “I was completely independent, I didn’t require anybody to be there with me to help me … I felt as ready as I needed to be. I was in that classroom making friends, and nobody really thought any different of me.”

HOPE opened 17 years ago and is the only program of its kind in the area, Driscoll said. And it’s growing.

“Last year was the tipping point,” Driscoll said. “Last year was the first time we had to start turning families away.”

The school employs four teachers who are trained in deaf and hard of hearing language-building skills. There is one instructional assistant and a part-time speech language pathologist, Driscoll said.

For the 2021 school year, they have 74 children, Driscoll said, a number that goes up every year. Most of the preschoolers have cochlear implants like Stachofsky.

From birth until age 3, HOPE teachers make hour-long home visits where they give parents methods for teaching their child to speak.

When the toddler is ready, they transition to the HOPE preschool on 1821 E. Sprague Ave. This is where they learn socialization skills and deepen what they learned while in the so-called “birth-to-3” program.

Each teacher works with up to 30 families at any given time, and they offer help to schools in the Spokane and Spokane Valley areas. Recently, the school has been asked to help more rural areas, Driscoll said.

Even after they send the kids to kindergarten classes, HOPE teachers check in with the families as they navigate the “mainstream” school system, said Laurel Graham, an early intervention provider.

“We also continue with that empowerment role,” Graham said. “I have a parent that is nervous about her little son going to preschool because he’ll be the first kid with cochlear implants, so we were just brainstorming for her son in particular if he gets stressed out.”

Parents also should know the equipment and lingo that comes with the community, said Amy Hardie, HOPE director of education.

Hardie said this is so they can advocate for their own child when they do enter school, often in a classroom where a teacher may not have this knowledge.

“That’s a huge part of the process, so we need to make sure that our kids are self-advocates for their equipment, and if they know that their battery doesn’t work, they can tell their friends,” Hardie said.

With modern technology, about 97% of newborns are tested for some kind of hearing loss, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Research has shown earlier intervention is better in building language skills. The skill-building techniques teachers give to parents range widely to accommodate each family’s needs and goals, Graham said.

About 52% of deaf children were taught through spoken language alone, according to responses from the Annual Survey of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children and Youth. Only 3% were taught with sign language only.

Hardie said language is developed through more than the act of speaking; it’s about visual cues and exposing the toddler to all sounds.

“There’s so much more to coach parents on when they’re in their natural environment, and the sounds that they make here and there,” Hardie said. “It’s teaching them about bath time and diapering and meal time. We can work around their daily schedule to make language development easy and more natural for the parents to be able to teach their children language.”

While researchers in the hearing sciences community debate whether natural spoken language or ASL is better for a child, there’s agreement about one thing: Kids should master at least one language, and they need to learn it early in life.

Mastering a language early makes healthy cognitive development in the child more likely, Hardie said.

Driscoll said cochlear implants, which the FDA approved in 2000 for infants as young as 12 months, helped places like HOPE serve kids at an earlier age, and thus increase their chances of learning a language.

The kids also develop a healthier attitude toward their implant, Driscoll said.

“All the kids get to see other kids with implants, and they think it’s normal,” Driscoll said.

Another challenge came in the form of a global pandemic that snaked through the community in 2020 and forced schools like HOPE to transition online. For a school focused on hands-on learning and social interaction for kids, the pandemic was “really hard,” Hardie said.

Masks don’t help when trying to teach a child language, Driscoll said, but she said it is still better than remote learning.

Stachofsky said he would not have been successful without the help of his HOPE teachers.

“My experience there was just phenomenal. It really transformed how I’m able to interact with the world, like I am today,” Stachofsky said. “Without HOPE school, I wouldn’t be able to be on the phone with you right now, listening to you, and be able to talk with you. Because HOPE school really was able to implement communication abilities that I needed to, you know, fully function as a citizen in the world. So, yeah, I owe that to HOPE school and my parents.”