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December 12, 2012

Clarke Featured in Hampshire Gazette: "Clarke and Leeds School Partnership ‘Breaks Down Barriers’ for Northampton Elementary Students"

December 12, 2012—(originally featured in the Hampshire Gazette) It’s midmorning on a recent school day and fifth-grader Fred Murray is preparing for the start of art class at Leeds School. A blond boy with a big vocabulary and an easy smile, he stands in the hallway, eagerly awaiting classmates.

Before he goes in, he has an important chore to perform. With help from his teacher, Fred tests a small portable transmitter he will “sync up” to his Cochlear implants, surgically placed electronic devices that allow him to hear. Once linked to the implants, the transmitter can make a teacher speaking across the room sound as though they were directly in front of him. After a few test runs with the transmitter, which his teacher wears around her neck, Fred’s all set. His fellow fifth-graders arrive and he heads into the classroom with them, joining in the friendly chaos of the morning’s assignment — making decorative tiles and holiday ornaments out of clay.

Fred sits at the end of a long table with a group of boys in hoodies and soccer jerseys. As they mold their ornaments, they chatter and joke about sports teams, grades and their clay designs.

At Leeds School, this is what inclusion looks like.

Fred, who lives in Easthampton, is one of 28 students from the Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech whose kindergarten through eighth-grade program moved to the city elementary school this fall. Since September, the Clarke/Leeds School, as they call it, has been housed in leased space on the first and second floors of the public school on Florence Street.

Clarke students, supervised by their teachers, alternate between their own class time and shared time at lunch, recess, gym, art and music classes with their Leeds School peers. Children in the older grades travel in a Clarke van to JFK Middle School to share similar activities with students there.

Welcome addition

While anxieties were voiced on both sides about the school-within-a-school model, Clarke and Leeds School leaders say the start of the program has gone even more smoothly than expected.

“The Leeds School has been really welcoming,” said Clarke President Bill Corwin. “Both communities are learning a lot about each other because there is a genuine interest and willingness on both sides.”

Leeds Principal Joseph Smith — who lobbied for his school to house the Clarke program — said the private school students have participated in field trips with Leeds students, as well as morning meetings and class projects.

“At the beginning, our teachers were tolerating this, but now they are embracing it,” Smith said. “The teachers have taken it to another level, finding opportunities for students to be together.”

At JFK, the main complaint about the Clarke/Leeds program is that it covers such a small part of the middle school day: lunch and an elective “block” class.

“Our teachers like having the Clarke students in class,” said JFK Principal Lesley Wilson. “We’re trying to figure out as many ways as we can to do that.”

John Crescitelli, who teaches technology at the middle school, said he wishes the Clarke students could “be at JFK full time.”

In his class, the handful of students with hearing loss don’t just sit passively at their computers, he said, but participate in group projects and give presentations to their JFK classmates.

The interaction has been a positive learning experience for both groups, Crescitelli said.

“It’s interesting watching the Clarke kids break down barriers,” he said. “And our JFK kids, we have such a great climate. Our kids are very flexible in learning to work with others.”

Demystifying hearing loss

The goal of moving the Clarke program to Leeds was to give students a “bridge” between a school for the deaf and mainstream education, Corwin said.

Because of advances in hearing aid and testing technology, “the trend is to mainstream at earlier and earlier ages,” he noted. “We wanted an opportunity for our kids to have more interaction with hearing kids.”

Over the past year, much of Clarke’s historic residential campus on Round Hill Road has been sold to a developer, though the private school’s pre-school program and its testing and counseling services remain there.

Kathi Shea, who has been teaching for 38 years at Clarke, said that while it’s been hard to see the residential program disappear, “the program at Leeds is a real gain for our kids.”

One major challenge for the Clarke students is learning to express their needs when they’re in classes with hearing students, said Shea, who is the lead teacher at Clarke/Leeds.

“Our kids sound so good that people forget they are hearing impaired,” she said. “We’re trying to give them strategies to help them get what they need.”

Clarke teachers have led training sessions for Leeds teachers, who now routinely wear transmitters when students with hearing loss attend their classes.

Clarke students have also explained the workings of their Cochlear implants to teachers and classmates at Leeds, Shea said.

“In a second-grade art class, our kids took off their implants and turned their backs to the teacher to show that they couldn’t hear without them,” she said.

Such moments have helped to “demystify” the experience of hearing loss, Shea added, making it easier for Leeds students to accept the newcomers from Clarke.

Mary Jo Nagle, a second-grade teacher at Leeds, says that acceptance has come quickly.

“The kids think those transmitters look like something Britney Spears would wear,” she said, as she watched a small group of Clarke students playing with her second-graders at recess.

“When the Clarke students come into the classroom it’s powerful,” Nagle added. “Our kids are amazed at their skill level. I think at first they thought these kids weren’t hearing at all.”

Shea said Clarke teachers have tried to preserve school traditions such as a recent “Cougar Pride” pep rally, while helping students adjust to their new public school setting.

The Leeds School has embraced those traditions. For example, when students in Leslie Macutkiewicz’s art classes were invited to paint a mural on the blade of a city snow plow recently, they included both the Leeds leopard and the Clarke cougar in their design.

‘Best of both worlds’

On a recent Wednesday at Leeds, Clarke school students Austin Moorhouse, a first grader and Bella DeLeo, a kindergartner, walked through the building with their teachers, delivering holiday cookies they’d made to city school staff.

Soon afterwards, Bella went to join Kathleen Lajoie’s class for their regular “table top” crafts session — an invitation Lajoie extended to the Clarke students soon after the start of the school year.

Bella sat at a table opposite Leeds classmate Krysta Martin and waited to have her hand traced to make a turkey design on her paper.

“How does that feel, Bella?” asked Cindy Cox, a classroom aide.

“It tickles!” Bella replied.

A few minutes later, she got up to ask Lajoie where the glue was kept, then sat back down with Krysta to finish her artwork.

At cleanup time, as the classroom became a whirl of small-person activity, Bella momentarily looked lost.

“I want to go and see Austin,” she told her teacher, referring to her Clarke school classmate.

Instead, she decided to stayed put, and a short time later, Bella was seated contentedly in a row of kneeling kindergartners as LaJoie began the morning meeting by passing around a small column of Lego blocks.

When the column came their way, each student added their own block as a way of taking attendance. The white blocks “are for our Clarke School friends,” Lajoie said, as Bella added hers to the column.

Bella’s teacher, Mary Franke, said one reason the school-within-a-school model has worked so well is that teachers from Leeds and Clarke share the same goals.

“We’re all here for the students, “ she said. “Really, any good teaching style works with deaf students. They can’t hear but otherwise they’re no different from other kids.”

Clarke school parents say initial fears about how their children would be treated by their public school peers have all but evaporated.

“I feel comfortable with her being there,” said Bella’s mom, Eva DeLeo of Westfield, whose husband, Doug, is a Clarke School trustee. “She’s safe and well taken care of. And she really enjoys the other children. We’re so glad Clarke went in this direction.”

Jeanne Murray, Fred’s mom, said having the Clarke program housed at Leeds “gives us the best of both worlds. All of his academic subjects are still in the small classes with his Clarke teachers but then he gets to be with the other kids.”

In the art session earlier this month, Fred — who is in Clarke’s combined fourth/fifth grade — chatted comfortably with the Leeds School fifth-graders as they passed rolling and cutting tools back and forth.

After Macutkiewicz reminded students to put their names on their ornaments, Fred’s hand shot up with a question.

“Can we put the year on it, too?” he wanted to know.

“You have a lot of good ideas,” she replied.

When asked how he feels about being at Leeds, Fred offered a list of the things he likes.

“I like the library and hanging out with my friends best,” he said. “Now that we’re here with the Leeds kids it makes time go faster.”

As for how his Leeds classmates feel about having Fred in their midst, fifth-grader Jack Diggins summed it up this way: “He’s fun,” Jack said. “It’s like talking to anyone else.”

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