It was a simple phrase--only five words long. But it summed up what Megan Williams had been pursuing for years: an opportunity for deaf children to hold their own in a hearing world. Her 5-year-old son, Jacob, who is deaf, had just asked her in sign language if she or his father were deaf.
When she signed "No," Jacob turned to his mother and signed:
"I wish you were deaf."
Williams' face lit up upon relating the story.
"Instead of saying, 'I wish I were not deaf,' he said, 'I wish you were deaf,' " said Williams, 43, who lives in Santa Monica. "That's progress. That's real self-esteem. For Jacob to understand and accept deafness at such a young age was really a healthy thing."
Jacob, now 11, is a student in a program that educates deaf children in a classroom with hearing children. Formed in 1982 by Williams; Jacob's father, Michael Shamberg; Herb Larson, director of Cal State Northridge's National Center on Deafness, and Carl Kirchner, the program helps families raise and educate their deaf and hearing-impaired children. The TRIPOD program--an acronym for Toward Rehabilitation Involvement by Parents of the Deaf--is a nonprofit organization that's run by Executive Director Kirchner and its board of directors, headed by Williams.
TRIPOD leases classroom and office space at the Horace Mann Child Care Center in Burbank, where it operates a Montessori preschool, staffed by both hearing and deaf educators. The school is attended by 16 deaf students and eight hearing students who either have deaf parents, have a sibling who is deaf or have parents who are professionals in deaf education.
Also unusual is the program TRIPOD runs in cooperation with the county and the Burbank Unified School District.
In three portable classrooms at the Burbank district's George Washington Elementary School, both hearing and deaf instructors team-teach 66 first- through fifth-graders, including 12 deaf or hearing-impaired students. Students arrive from all areas of the county.
The program is considered unusual among public school systems, which rarely team up with private agencies for such projects. According to Kirchner and others in the field, no other deaf education program in the nation integrates hearing children into the classroom on a daily basis.
In the Burbank TRIPOD program, "there's a natural, free-flowing environment," said Kirchner, 52, a retired CSUN associate professor of special education. "Deaf kids are signing and talking to hearing kids who are signing to their deaf friends who are all signing and talking to either hearing or deaf teachers. That is what education for deaf children should be--normal interaction."
Most deaf children enrolled in public and private programs are only integrated with hearing children during recess or at special events, said Kirchner, who was raised by deaf parents. But the deaf children, he added, tend to play apart from hearing children.
Stephen Sinclair, CSUN professor of audiology, called the TRIPOD integration program "very unique" and said it "enhances the whole spectrum of personal development."
"Hearing youngsters intuitively develop social and pragmatic skills--how to get along in life, problem-solving or just knowing how to get through a day," said Sinclair, whose department, along with CSUN's National Center on Deafness, serves the nation's largest deaf student population within a hearing university. "When deaf children are put in a self-contained classroom, a lot of problem-solving is done for them. They just don't have the skills found in a mainstream classroom like TRIPOD's."
Sinclair warned, however, that mainstreaming is not a blanket solution for all deaf students. "It might set back students who have less than average intelligence, an unsupportive family or additional handicaps--they wouldn't be able to keep up," he said.
Deaf children attending preschool at Los Angeles-based John Tracy Clinic interact one day a week with hearing children from a nearby preschool. Programs such as John Tracy, founded in 1942, maintain that deaf children require concentrated linguistic work, possible only in segregated classrooms, according to clinic Executive Director James Garrity.
The John Tracy Clinic uses an oral approach to education, encouraging speech to help mainstream deaf children into a hearing world, Garrity said. TRIPOD uses what is called a total communication approach, which combines techniques to acquire language: listening, reading, sign language, lip reading, speech, gesture and mime, Kirchner said.
TRIPOD also operates a national toll-free hot line (1-800-346-8888, both voice and TDD) to deal with such concerns as parents' rights to learn which dentists in town are fluent in sign language. A program for parents, infants and toddlers provides ongoing support for families grappling with challenges presented by deaf children.
TRIPOD does not charge tuition; its $700,000 annual budget comes from fund-raisers, individual donations, foundations and corporations. About 15% of the budget comes from state and federal funds earmarked for education programs for children with special needs.
In a combined first- and second-grade classroom at Washington, a hearing teacher signed and spoke the day's lesson to a group of six students: "If there are 10 birds and six fly away, how many birds are left?" she asked the class. Students, both hearing and deaf, puzzled out the problem using small cubes. "Three," answered one, also signing with her fingers. "Six," said another. "Four?" asked Aimee Walker, holding four fingers up, with one thumb wavering in case the answer was five.
Aimee, 8, joined the program a year ago and is now functioning at a second-grade level, said her mother, Patsy Walker of North Hollywood. "We're thrilled to have her in TRIPOD. To be mainstreamed with hearing children has made the difference. Her language skills and social interaction have really skyrocketed."
Aimee said she "likes that all the hearing kids are mixed in" with her class, "because then you can understand them."
Dale Mivelaz, 10, a hearing child in the combined fourth- and fifth-grade class, added: "It's neat to know different people. You get to know how to sign and talk to them. I've taught things to Jake (a deaf friend) that he didn't know before--like how to swing a baseball bat and how to play hand-tag."
Dale and other students have the option of attending after-school sign language classes at Washington taught by student interns from CSUN's department of communicative disorders. Hearing students are randomly selected for entrance into the TRIPOD program, the same procedure used to fill other Washington classrooms.
Aimee previously attended a program for the deaf at Panorama City's Chase Street public school, where most of the teachers were hearing. Hiring both deaf and hearing teachers, said Patty Ivankovic, a deaf TRIPOD preschool teacher, is the key to providing good role models.
"In this program, I can see more development in the children," said Ivankovic, 29, who previously worked as a teacher in the Los Angeles public schools. "With both hearing and deaf role models, I see the whole child develop and integrate in ways that are not possible when there are mostly hearing teachers."
TRIPOD employs nine teachers at its preschool and elementary programs, five of whom are deaf.
Michele Confeld-Swift, a hearing teacher, said the deaf children in her combined second- and third-grade class at Washington "have achieved a real comfort level with hearing people. They're not afraid to go up to another hearing child and ask to be in a game. And for the hearing kids, signing is fun. For the most part, we have never sat down and taught them sign language, we just use it and don't make a big deal about it. They pick it up real fast."
Some might wonder if hearing children are held back when educated alongside the deaf, but Sinclair said no. "Based on a personal observation, TRIPOD is a language-rich environment where both hearing and deaf students are given ample opportunity to learn," said Sinclair, adding that no studies have been done on the program. "Language is language, no matter if it's oral or sign."
TRIPOD is sometimes criticized by deaf educators for its lack of a structured linguistic program for the deaf, which some believe could hamper language acquisition.
Mary Jo Osberger, director of research for Indiana University's otolaryngology department, said: "It's a semantics problem. By 'structure' we refer to the old, rote language and grammar drills. Many deaf educators are now favoring meaningful language experiences for children that incorporate their environment."
Kirchner added: "Our speech program may not be as concentrated as others, but it totally surrounds the students. Casual classroom conversation with deaf and hearing students is perhaps the greatest instructor."
Gallaudet University in Washington, the nation's only college for deaf and hearing-impaired students, collaborates with TRIPOD on research projects and confirmed that the program's deaf students have kept pace linguistically with hearing students of the same age.
"I was impressed with the spontaneity during interactions between hearing and deaf TRIPOD students," said Kathryn Meadow-Orleans, a Gallaudet senior research scientist who recently spent a week observing the TRIPOD program. "And that's one of the key characteristics that a good grasp of language gives to children--the spontaneous sharing of thoughts and feelings."
In Burbank, the merger of a private organization and a public school is an astounding bit of news to those familiar with plodding state and county bureaucracies.
"TRIPOD is the only program I am aware of that integrates private and public agencies on a daily basis," said Jack Hazecamp, special education consultant with the California Department of Education in Sacramento. "The state and county educational systems are moving toward regionalization now where centralized education programs serve students from a surrounding area. TRIPOD fits perfectly into that. It's an excellent model for other programs around the state."