Mario Lagunes is like any other kindergartener at Frankford Elementary. He arrives to school each morning ready and willing to learn. He takes part in all of his class’ exercises, learning how to pronounce letters and words correctly and he is continually evaluated on his performance.
But there was a time when Mario’s parents, his teachers and school administrators didn’t think he would be in that position. After being born premature at 25 weeks and spending seven months in the hospital, Mario was left profoundly deaf and with a paralyzed vocal chord.
“When he was 1-year-old, he looked like a 3-month-old baby,” said Miriam Lagunes, Mario’s mother. “It’s amazing what he’s gone through and overcome.”
At one time, school administrators considered sending Mario, who received a cochlear implant to help his hearing in October of 2003, to a school for the deaf in Wilmington. But he is now one of five students — all of whom are Hispanic — in the Frankford school’s Hard of Hearing/Profoundly Deaf program, under the supervision of the program’s lead teacher, Corinne Elliott.
Elliott, who received audio-verbal therapy training at A.I. DuPont Hospital, started at Frankford Elementary in the fall of 2003. Since then, she has worked individually with Mario, a preschooler, two first-graders and a second-grader in the school’s program, helping to integrate them into regular classrooms with the aid of a community organization.
At the beginning of the school year, the Lord Baltimore Women’s Club donated a software program and sound equipment to help students like Mario.
“Since I only have five kids, it’s very hard to get what I need,” Elliott said. “Most of the things we used had to come out of my pocket.”
Mario uses the sound equipment — a simple microphone and amplifier with a pig-nose volume knob — in class every day, and it allows the other children to hear him speak. Without the equipment — which is now collectively referred to as “the pig-nosed amplifier” — he doesn’t speak above a whisper, because of his paralyzed vocal chord.
“Just a simple thing from B&B Music opened up the world for this child,” Elliott said. “It gives him a voice. It’s amazing what a little technology can do.”
The software — a program called Boardmaker that the Women’s Club purchased for the program — has made a similar impact in the classroom. It allows Elliott to print a vocabulary word on a card alongside a picture, demonstrating what the word means. With visual representation, the students pick up the word much faster than they would have otherwise, Elliott said.
“Deaf children don’t develop the same kind of sight-vocabulary we do,” she added. “If you can reinforce the words with a sign, the kids can understand.”
And the education doesn’t stop with the students, she added. Because of their parent’s background’s, most of them speak only minimal English if they speak the language at all.
Elliott prints out the cards for the parents – all of whom have been very active in sign-language classes through the school to help their children — and they use a magnet to post them on their refrigerator doors at home.
“We were going into the homes, making word-walls so the parents can learn English with their kids,” Elliott said. “All of our parents have word walls in their kitchens now.”
Miriam Lagunes is the only parent of Elliott’s five students who doesn’t need a word wall made from the Boardmaker software to help her speak the language. She is bilingual and speaks English very clearly. In turn, Elliott relies on Lagunes to communicate with the other parents – something that the parent has no problem doing for the teacher she called “fantastic.”
Lagunes is especially grateful for the sound equipment donated by the Women’s Club, because it gives her 6-year-old son a voice. And Mario isn’t the only student that benefits from the new equipment. His fellow students also use the amplifier and microphone in class, so he can hear them speak more clearly.
“It’s really great,” Miriam Lagunes said. “If there’s a lot of background noise, it’s hard for him to identify words.” And now, with the help of that simple piece of equipment, he doesn’t need to go to a school in Wilmington to fit in. He fits in just fine with his fellow students in Frankford.
“He’s continuously learning how to speak,” Miriam Lagunes said. “Everything has been going really, really good at Frankford since (Elliott) has been there.”