BY Sam Chandler | Published by Village Living on October 17th, 2019
You wouldn’t know it was there.
Not if you were driving along Montevallo Road into Mountain Brook Village or zipping downtown along U.S. 280. But tucked away in the back corner of Shades Valley Presbyterian Church, in a few first-floor classrooms, a special school exists.
It’s called the Woolley Institute for Spoken-Language Education, and it teaches children who are deaf or hard of hearing to talk.
“The goal of this program is for children to develop spoken language,” said Nancy Gregg, the school’s director, “because we believe that’s the key to independence for children, to be able to go to their neighborhood schools and to grow up in a typical hearing society with their siblings and with their families.”
The Woolley Institute, abbreviated as WISE, is a nonprofit preschool that serves children from birth to 6 years old. It took residence in Canterbury United Methodist Church for the first nine years of its existence, from 2009-18, and was known as the Alabama School for Hearing.
Over the summer, it changed locations and names. Now, it pays homage to Dr. Audie Woolley, a pediatric otolaryngologist at Children’s of Alabama who directs the hospital’s cochlear implant program. Woolley helped start the school with fellow ear, nose and throat doctor Robert Baldwin and now serves as WISE president.
“It’s really vital for the success of a cochlear implant program to have a place where kids can go get rehabilitation,” Woolley said. “Doing the surgery is just a very small part of the whole process.”
Woolley said one child in every 1,000 is born deaf, making it among the most common birth defects. In Alabama, where there are between 40,000 to 50,000 births per year, that translates to 40 to 50 children who are born deaf, Woolley said.
“It’s a real need to have a program,” he said.
Although there is another school in the state that serves deaf children, the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind in Talladega, WISE brands itself as the only program of its kind within state lines. That’s because it’s dedicated to teaching children with hearing impairments how to speak rather than rely on American Sign Language.
WISE’s mission is to prepare its students for entrance into mainstream school systems, like those in Mountain Brook and Homewood.
“So even though they may be born profoundly deaf, by the time they go to kindergarten, or at least first grade, we want their speech and language skills to be like that of their peers,” Gregg said.
The school’s enrollment fluctuates, but this year it has 15 students in its preschool program and five students in its early intervention program. The preschool is for children ages 3 to 6, while the early intervention program is for children younger than 3.
Gregg said the school draws students from as far away as Gadsden, Huntsville, Montgomery and Tuscaloosa. “I know for a fact that at least one or two families have moved to Homewood specifically once their kids have been diagnosed,” said Jennifer Andress, a WISE board member and Homewood city councilor.
Andress has been involved with the school since its inception. Her two sons, John and Will, are both hearing impaired and have cochlear implants. The device sits under the skull, threads through the cochlea and stimulates the auditory nerve.
“The brain has to learn what to do with that information,” Andress said.
John received his implants at age 6 and didn’t attend WISE. But Will was part of its inaugural class. He was born profoundly deaf, which means that he wasn’t able to hear any speech. He got his cochlear implants before he turned 2.
“The day they get their implant is the day they’re born in terms of hearing,” Gregg said. Will, like other students, benefited greatly from the audio-verbal therapy he received at WISE. Classes are taught by certified speech language pathologists and certified speech and spoken language specialists.
They teach children for four hours a day, four days per week, with curriculum geared toward improving their listening, comprehension and speech skills.
“It takes a lot of work, so it’s not like glasses,” Gregg said of cochlear implants. “When you put your glasses on, you immediately see better. But for a kid who gets a cochlear implant, they don’t immediately hear better.”
Andress said those early years were labor intensive for Will. But his persistence paid off prior to kindergarten, when he tested at the same level as his peers for hearing and processing speech. Today, he doesn’t miss a beat. He’s a freshman at Homewood High School who holds a perfect GPA, runs cross-country and plays on the tennis team with his older brother, a Homewood junior.
Andress said WISE made all the difference. “It was a game changer,” she said.
She’s not alone in her assessment. Mountain Brook residents Bart and Mary Lauren McBride enrolled their daughter, Vivi, at the school when she was 3. Vivi was born with severe hearing loss and has cochlear implants. Her mom said that a therapist at Children’s hospital told them about the school.
It was within walking distance from their home, but the McBrides didn’t even realize it existed. “My mind was kind of blown that there was something like this,” said Mary Lauren McBride, another WISE board member.
Vivi couldn’t say much when she first started, save for a handful of basic words. By the end of her first year, however, her vocabulary had eclipsed 500 words. McBride said the school changed her daughter’s life and prepared her for kindergarten.
“The therapy that she was provided at the school was just so specialized for kids like her,” McBride said. “It was amazing.”
Vivi and her twin sister, Collier, who doesn’t have a hearing impairment, are now first-graders at Crestline Elementary. Vivi still meets weekly with a therapist provided by Mountain Brook Schools to hone her listening and speech. Like Will Andress, she too is excelling. “As far as reading and writing and listening, she’s right on par with her other classmates,” McBride said.
The McBride and Andress families only had to pay nominal supply fees when their children were attending the school. WISE doesn’t have tuition, as its costs are offset by state funds, community grants and charitable donations.
Gregg said the school has been blessed by support and, this month, will expand its early intervention program.
Woolley said he wants to open another location in Huntsville within the next year. He knows there is a need, even if most people don’t know the school exists.
“I give them a new ear,” he said, “but the school teaches them how to use the ear.”