Prairie Lakes AEA teacher specializes in helping students with hearing difficulty
By CONNIE JOHNSON
Prairie Lakes AEA
Itinerant teacher for the deaf and hard of hearing isn’t likely a familiar job title.
However, according to research from Gallaudet University, more than 70,000 children and youth were identified as receiving special education services because the child had a “hearing impairment” of educational significance.
Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency is one of nine AEAs created in 1974 to ensure all Iowa students have access to high-quality educational services regardless of where they live, which school they attend, and their abilities.
About 80 percent of the services are in the area of special education. That includes students from birth to age 21 in 40 public school districts, and 11 accredited, nonpublic schools in a 14-county area.
At Prairie Lakes AEA, four teachers provide services to about 35 students of all ages who are deaf or hard of hearing. In addition to providing direct services to these students, AEA teachers work with teachers to address learning needs of those students who are deaf or hard of hearing.
One of these teachers is Elizabeth Cooper.
Cooper joined Prairie Lakes AEA in February 2014. Her career choice came from the desire to do something very specific to help kids, so she pursued a career in early intervention (birth to age 3) and deaf education. Her college program was comprehensive and focused on teaching language through listening, which includes audiology and speech-language pathology.
After receiving her degree, she was employed by the Washington, D.C., public schools as a teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing, and began working to provide direct services to students between ages 3 and 21.
She then partnered with Kendall Demonstration Elementary School and Model Secondary School for the Deaf on the campus of Gallaudet University, a private university in Washington, D.C., dedicated to the education of people who are deaf and hard of hearing.
During that time, her family settled in the Chicago area, so she began looking for jobs that would bring her closer to the Midwest. Her search led her to discover that Prairie Lakes AEA had an opening, and through coincidence, would also reconnect with college classmate and friend, Jane Thilges, an early childhood special education teacher/consultant at Prairie Lakes AEA.
“I talked with Chief Administrator Jeff Herzberg about the job, and then drove out during Christmas and stayed with Jane,” Cooper said. “I didn’t understand how the AEA system worked. I was pleased to learn that I would work with students from birth to age 21 and would also work directly with the schools. That excited me.”
On a typical day, Cooper stops in the Fort Dodge office to gather files, paperwork and materials, and to touch base with the families and teachers that she will see today. This upfront preparation enables her to make efficient use of her time by reducing travel and stops back to the office.
Her first stop this day is Humboldt where she’ll work with sisters Jacilynn and Julianne Cooke, daughters of Amber and Brad Cooke. Two of their four children were born deaf because of a rare genetic mutation. A newborn hearing screening detected a potential hearing loss and the family followed up with Prairie Lakes AEA audiologist, Maureen Salinas.
Both of the girls have cochlear implants. Jacilynn is now age 3 and received her cochlear implants at age 2. Cooper works with her on the skills needed to listen with purpose, sit and complete two-step tasks, and imitating sounds.
Julianne was 5 when she received her cochlear implants. Now at age 9, she attends Taft Elementary in Humboldt where she has a communications coach, Niki Ludolph, to help her in the classroom. Ludolph helps Julianne maintain focus and listen to receive the instructions given by her teachers.
During her weekly meetings, Cooper works directly with Julianne to improve her auditory memory and help her brain connect words and pictures to build that visual memory. She talks with Ludolph to learn how specific strategies are working and to keep updated on Julianne’s progress. Cooper also talks frequently with Julianne’s mom, Amber, to make connections between home and school.
Next stop is Eagle Grove to check in with two students, Jillian Kovacs and Yasmine Martinez.
Iowa has an expanded core curriculum for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. This tool is designed for teachers of students who are deaf or hard of hearing and educational audiologists to address these identified areas that are either not taught or require specific and direct teaching. In addition to the essential skills and concepts of the Iowa Core, students who are deaf or hard of hearing have specialized needs not covered in the general education curriculum.
“One of my goals is to make each student a master of their hearing loss,” Cooper said. “They should be able to understand to explain their situation with knowledge and confidence. Jillian needs hearing aids just like I need glasses to help me. She is creative and artistic, and she also has a hearing loss.”
At age 4, Kovacs was diagnosed with a mild to moderate/severe hearing loss in both ears and wears hearing aids.
Now a middle school student, Kovacs has joined two other students at the middle school who also have the same device and can help one another as needed. She attends her own IEP meetings and shares her insights with the team.
“One of my worst memories is having to go home to get my hearing aids because I forgot them,” Kovacs said. “Now, I remind myself that I am responsible and I can do this on my own.”
After sending Kovacs back to class, Cooper heads down the hall to meet with Martinez before the school day ends.
Martinez received the cochlear implant in her right ear at age 18 months, and left ear at 36 months. She received early intervention services to help her build vocabulary and connect words to “real” things. Her family moved to Eagle Grove when she was in kindergarten, and Martinez has a communications coach and paraprofessional to help with academics and language.
Cooper provides both consultative services to her teachers, and direct services to Martinez. They continue to build her vocabulary, conversation, and thinking skills.
When the bell rings signaling the end of the school day, Cooper places her bags in the trunk and heads back to Fort Dodge.
“This is a job where a lot of trust is placed in me,” Cooper said. “I am responsible to ensure students are making progress, meeting goals, and I have the opportunity to organize my schedule to work with students and families, make connections with schools, and collaborate with teachers to make that happen.”