A classmate called Trey Walton the smartest boy in his kindergarten class last year at Mechanicsville Elementary, the end of a long road that started with tragedy when he was 2.
"At 2 years and 2 months, he contracted bacterial meningitis," recalls Trey's dad, Bill Walton, describing his son's near-death days in the hospital. "He lived, but as a result he was deaf. He had a cochlear implant [then], and a year and a half later, he had one on the left side."
Now 7, Trey is a first-grader with a true zeal for science, his favorite subject in school. His success in mainstream classes belies earlier practices that kept deaf children sequestered in special classrooms. Trey found help at Chattering Children, a nonprofit school that teaches auditory-verbal learning to deaf children who have cochlear implants or use hearing aids. The Lakeside Avenue school, which serves students from a few weeks old to age 10, is the only such facility in Virginia.
"Chattering Children came in and taught Trey how to use his device," Walton says. "Almost every week we would see him improving in his ability to communicate." The school uses common classroom activities — finger painting, games and cooking — that are specialized to emphasize language development. Students learn to work with their hearing devices and communicate verbally without additional assistance, such as sign language.
Cochlear implants have not always been accepted by members of the deaf community, who were concerned their culture would erode. Christine Eubanks, Chattering Children's assistant director, says this was partly due to traditional communication through sign language before technology created more options. Cochlear implants, which were invented in the 1970s, send auditory signals to the inner ear, unlike hearing aids, which amplify sounds.
"The whole point is that we want children to be mainstream as soon as possible. Our children can attend school like any other child," says Sandra Colello, development coordinator for Chattering Children.
Most children, including Trey, attend the school for about three years, until they enter a public or private school. Chattering Children provides early intervention — allowing children to enter first grade or kindergarten at the standard age.
"I am so grateful for what they have done for my son," Walton notes. "They prepared him so well."