“Yeah, it’s like … Disney World here.”
This is how one of my new colleagues described The River School. She smiled knowingly when I explained my desire to accept a job here before Bryan graduated. That’s the great thing about River – every educator and speech pathologist has a similar passion and knowledge about children with hearing loss. This can be intimidating! – but mostly it’s collaborative. River is a fantasy land for families who have chosen a spoken language approach for their child with cochlear implants or hearing aids.
I know I promised to tell you about River, but where do I even begin?
A Short(ish) History: River was founded 15 years ago when Nancy Mellon struggled to find the right school for her son with hearing loss. Nancy’s son was one of the first to be fitted with cochlear implants – before schools quite knew what to do these kids straddling two worlds (hearing and deaf). Because her son was typically developing (with the exception of his hearing loss), Nancy knew that a self-contained classroom (composed of only children with language delays) would not be ideal for acquiring spoken language. Spoken language is learned almost wholly incidentally – overhearing others conversations, playing with peers, observing interactions, etc. Neither would a mainstream classroom (where hearing-impaired children are often overlooked by teachers, left out by peers, or “just barely get by”) be ideal. Nancy’s research led her to fight for her son’s ability to participate in a mainstream classroom as she also hired a personal speech-language pathologist to shadow him throughout the day.
This experience led to Nancy’s vision for the River School. The River School’s mission is to “challenge each child to work collaboratively, to think critically, and to develop the confidence to take risks, embrace their curiosity, and find their voice.” Families who find themselves in a similar situation can be assured their child is receiving the best possible education in a supportive, enriched environment.
What does The River School Model look like?: River is an inclusion school, which means that all classes include children with hearing loss and children with above-average language abilities. Each class has two full-time teachers: one Masters-level educator and one speech-language pathologist. The curriculum is built for active learning focused on highly interesting, dynamic themes which change every 2-4 weeks. The curriculum prioritizes social-emotional learning (developing positive and empathetic peer relationships).
River only goes up to grade 3. The goal is that by this age, children with hearing loss have received the foundational language-learning, positive peer interaction, and specialized intensive therapy to participate successfully in a mainstreamed classroom.
River employs 2 full-time audiologists who are extremely (and personally) knowledgeable about each child with hearing loss. They practice on-site to address any device malfunctions which may occur in the course of a day.
How can this model be sustainable?: As you’ve probably already guessed, this model is extraordinarily expensive (small classes , highly educated faculty, one speech pathologist to ~3 children with hearing loss, 2 full-time audiologists, 7 specialists [art, music, science, PE, drama, yoga, library], and a thematic curriculum necessitating complete transformation of classrooms every 2-4 weeks). Children with hearing loss are not always able to afford this model. River has prioritized financial aid for every child who qualifies – but this also means more expense.
River sustains their unique model through: tuition, multiple grants, an endowment, clinical services, afterschool care/activities, and fundraising events.
What’s your job, again?: I’ll be working as a speech pathologist in the classroom for half-day students (~3 yrs old). For the second half of the day I will conduct individual therapy (based on auditory-verbal principles) for full-day students at River.
I’m SO ready for the first day of school on Tuesday! It’s been a learning curve – speech pathologists generally practice independently. Co-teaching with a teacher and setting up a classroom has been a whole new experience for me. But one I am thankful for – because that’s where the best language-learning happens (not within a whitewashed therapy room).
A final note: if you’re looking for a cause to support, I’ll testify that this is a worthy one.
Or at least worth spreading the word about.