At first glance, Dionna Scherzi’s afternoon preschool class at Fox Hollow Elementary looks like any other preschool class. It’s filled with energetic youngsters between the ages of 3 and 5, who are learning how to “do school.”
“We’re learning numbers, counting, forwards and backwards. We’re doing our alphabet and recognizing letters,” Scherzi said. “We focus a lot on social-emotional skills, learning what feelings are, how to talk with your friends, how to interact with your peers.”
Along with all that learning, something else is going on, something you don’t see in a typical preschool classroom: nearly all of the adults and many of the children are using both speech and sign language to communicate.
“All of the teachers know American Sign Language, but we do more signed English, because we’re talking and signing at the same time,” explained Scherzi, who co-teaches the class with Jolene Terry, a teacher of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Terry has additional training and experience in special education and working with students who have hearing impairments.
Fox Hollow Elementary is home to the Cherry Creek School District’s Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) Preschool program. There are a total of 80 preschool students who attend either morning or afternoon sessions. Eight students who have been diagnosed with some type of hearing loss have been placed in the program. They are in a class with another seven preschoolers who do not have any hearing loss. One of the goals of the program is inclusiveness.
“For many of our students, this is their first experience in a school setting and they see the kids that have a hearing aid or cochlear implants,” Terry said. “All kids are curious so they’ll ask about it. It gives them that first opportunity to see that there are differences among all of us and those differences are celebrated and that we’re all here to learn and to be a team and to be good classmates.”
Parent Sunny Kim loves the blended classroom. She says her 3-year-old son Joshua, who has a mild hearing loss in his left ear, and a moderate to severe hearing loss in his right ear, is thriving there.
“It’s been wonderful,” Kim said. “Honestly, I think he’s made the most progress in speech as a result of this program because he’s around other kids who are able to speak, and the teachers are very conscientious. His speech has come a long way.”
Parent Robyn Nieder also loves the blended classroom and the progress her 5-year-old son Nathan is making there. Although Nathan doesn’t have any hearing issues, he is learning sign language, which allows him to communicate with his cousin Molly, who has a cochlear implant.
“Nathan is amazing with learning sign language. We do sign language quite a bit at home,” Nieder said. In addition to helping Nathan learn another way to communicate, Nieder says his Fox Hollow teachers have helped him overcome some behavioral issues he was experiencing at a previous preschool.
“This child has done a complete 180,” Nieder said. “I get all choked up when I think about it. The staff here is amazing. He’s a completely different child, he’s flourishing.”
Scherzi and Terry say helping all kids succeed is at the heart of what they do every day.
“The greatest reward is definitely seeing the little victories in the classroom… seeing the kids grow and blossom,” Scherzi said.
“Being able to watch them grow in their language is the most rewarding thing,” Terry added.” Knowing that some of these kids have the challenge of not being able to verbally communicate with others and have that relationship with their classmates – we help bridge that gap.”
For students with a high degree of hearing loss, the Cherry Creek School District offers a center-based DHH program at Fox Hollow Elementary, Liberty Middle School and Grandview High School. Students who have lower levels of hearing loss work with itinerant DHH teachers at their home schools. For more information about the DHH Program, visit http://cherrycreekschools.org/StudentAchievement/Pages/DeafandHardofHearing.aspx.
The district also offers high-quality, affordable preschool at more than 20 locations across the district. The preschool program features an extremely low staff-to-student ratio and a comprehensive, scientifically-based, early-childhood curriculum. For more information about the preschool program, visit http://earlychildhood.cherrycreekschools.org/.