Walking down the halls of Karen Western Elementary School, teachers are leading classes in their daily lessons. Students are listening, taking notes, raising their hands or reading along.
In most classes, teachers can be seen wearing a headset. There may also be an interpretor next to them as they teach using sign language to communicate.
Karen Western is the elementary home base for Ralston Public Schools’ deaf and hard of hearing program, one of only two programs in the metro area. The other program is through Omaha Public Schools.
RPS’ program is part of Suburban Schools Program, which was originally started to cater to families with deaf and hard of hearing children in Ralston, Papillion, La Vista and Millard. When it began, the Nebraska School for the Deaf was still open in north Omaha, but was a little far for students from all over Douglas and Sarpy counties make the daily commute.
In 1998, the Nebraska School for the Deaf closed, leaving OPS and RPS as nearby options with full-time programs for deaf and hard of hearing students.
“We have morphed over the years,” program director Diane Meyer said. “We’ve expanded. Now, we have a student from Arlington. We have a student from the DC West district. We have students from Bellevue, Westside and Elkhorn.”
There are 30 deaf students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in RPS. The pre-k program is held at Seymour Elementary. Grades kindergarten through sixth are at Karen Western Elementary and deaf programs continue at Ralston Middle School and Ralston High School.
The programs at Karen Western are catered to individual students and their needs, Meyer said.
“It is the student driving what we do for them,” she said. “You don’t come in and we make you mold to us. We work with you.”
Students work with the same teacher for kindergarten through sixth grade.
Students in the deaf program are often still in some classes with their hearing classmates. In certain subjects where they may need extra help or assistance, they go to a deaf educator like Kendra Peitz.
“We provide all levels of learning styles,” Peitz said. “It might be more resource where they are with us for one class. Or they might be with us for more than half the day or almost a full day.”
Peitz said the deaf and hard of hearing program still uses the school curriculum, but they do it at a level that deaf students can learn at and understand. They often call it “front loading” so when they enter a class for hearing students, they will be prepared.
Hearing students learn a majority of their information from what is called “incidental learning,” which can be from overhearing or conversations, listening to a television program in the background while they accomplish another task.
Deaf or hard of hearing students often don’t receive that incidental learning since they must be looking directly at an interpretor to communicate or can’t hear something so far away.
Peitz said she and other deaf educators help their students prepare for the lack of incidental learning.
“It’s whatever the students need to help them strive in a mainstream classroom,” she said. “We know that hearing students learn from incidental learning. We try to give [deaf or hard of hearing students] that leg up so when they go into that classroom, they can be successful.”
Another way to help deaf and hard of hearing students is an FM headset system all teachers wear. Deaf and hard of hearing students can put an attachment onto their hearing aid and it connects with their teachers’ headset radio, allowing them to hear him or her.
“Each teacher wears a mic so the students always have that access whether they’re in P.E., the lunchroom or anywhere,” Peitz said.
Having the deaf and hard of hearing students at one elementary school helps them feel less alone and more normal, Meyer said.
“For many of our students, they don’t want others to know they have hearing aids so they might cover them with their hands,” she said. “It’s easier when they’re around others and they can say ‘Hey, there’s people like me.’ Being able to see or interact with people like them helps.”
Both Meyer and Peitz have been with RPS for 11 years. In that time, they have seen students thrive thanks to the RPS program.
“I had a young lady who came to Ralston High School who is an architect now. I have had students who are pilots. They are living up to their dreams,” Meyer said.
Peitz, who works with the same students during their time at Karen Western, loves watching them grow and progress.
“We’re kind of a unique piece because we see them for seven years,” she said. “We see how they grow with language and socially with their peers. We create such a bond. They’re like brothers and sisters.”