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New Muskegon-area program for deaf, hard of hearing kids 'opening up their world'

The program was launched this year by the MAISD in conjunction with Reeths-Puffer Public Schools.

MUSKEGON COUNTY, Mich. — A program brand new to Muskegon County could be a lifeline for a historically underserved group of kids: the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

Ensuring children have their needs met early on can hold life-long consequences.

Muskegon Area Intermediate School District partnered with Reeths-Puffer Schools to get the effort off the ground.

“There isn't really anything for them within the resident districts,” Emily Robbins, program coordinator and speech language pathologist for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing program related. “They weren't able to communicate with other kids unless they had an interpreter.”

The idea and approach intended to remedy that problem are both brand new this year.

“We have more options for students as they turn three,” Karlie Parker, MAISD’s associate superintendent of special education noted. “Birth to Three, we do this work with them in their homes… as a matter of fact, several of them in this classroom we met when they were babies.”

Parker said those visits sparked a broader effort to affect change.

“While we were working in the homes with infants and toddlers, it became pretty clear that we had a heavy amount of needs within that group of children for their upcoming education,” she explained.

That’s after its precursor – a program operated by Muskegon Public – dissolved about 15 years earlier.

In the intervening years, the district said parents were often faced with the tough choice to instead send their kids to one of the only alternatives: the Michigan School for the Deaf, which is located in the Flint area.

The Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program, the district said, has already become a kind of local lifeline, arming parents with resources and their children with an edge in the classroom, skills to manage daily challenges and meaningful connections to last a lifetime.

“80-percent of the brain is developed by the time a child turns three and then 90%, developed by the time a child turns five,” Robbins noted. “If we're not getting to them now, then the chances of them succeeding as they move up in their grade levels is getting less and less likely.”

“If it's good for kids, we're going to do it even if it's hard,” Paul Klimsza, principal of Reeths-Puffer Elementary School related. “One of the things I noticed last year, we had a young man that started in our programming at kindergarten, we did not have a Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program for him. I saw how difficult that was for him to navigate school in the school world. When I thought about it, these are his peers, these are the kids he's going to graduate high school with. To have him not have access to the same educational benefits that all of our students do, it wasn't right.”

The district said its intention was to scale the program alongside its first group of little learners, eventually expanding into upper elementary and later, middle and high school.

“We're just expanding who they're able to talk to and be around,” Robbins said. “If they were in their one classroom at the resident district, they might have been the only person there that had a hearing aid or that was using sign. So, it's just opening up their world.”

For more information, visit the MAISD website.

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