Luzerne IU 18: Building Unbreakable Bonds

A profile in the PAIU series, "Early Intervention Changes Lives:
Pennsylvania Families and the Intermediate Units that Serve Them"

The Skylar Burkhardt story: Defying the odds
Some people might have written off Skylar Burkhardt, assuming her cerebral palsy and hearing loss would irreparably delay her physical and language development. But her Luzerne IU 18 teachers and therapists “saw fire in her,” says Skylar’s mom, Brenda Burkhardt.

“She was trying to work her body to get things done,” says Burkhardt. “They saw right away. They know she’s intelligent. They know she’s smart. She just needed a certain environment, and that’s what they offered.”

Today, Skylar can hear, thanks to two cochlear implants. She is an 8-year-old who loves playing instruments, adding silly lyrics to favorite songs, playing with her 5-year-old sister, Kolbie, and sharing books, even if she can’t always read the words.

All this, from a child “who could only blow bubbles at 3,” says her mom. “All she did was drink milk from a straw. I just want to be able to address her needs and wants. Not only did I get that, but we’re past that, to the point that now she’s on an academic track.”

In IU 18’s preschool for children with hearing loss, Skylar was immersed in a language-rich environment and pushed to communicate her needs. As staff said, “We’re going to give her the opportunity to learn what other kids her age know.”

Skylar’s IU 18 teachers remain in touch, staying “steadfast in helping me make decisions for her,” Burkhardt says. “I sincerely could not ask for any better guidance. They truly, 100 percent care about their kids. It’s not a job to them. It’s their passion.”

Luzerne IU 18: Closing speech and language gaps
Medical science has made amazing strides in reversing hearing loss, but cochlear implants and hearing aids can’t teach children how to translate new sounds to language.

“The day you get amplification, that’s the day your hearing is technically born,” says Sue Zerfoss, teacher in Luzerne IU 18’s Preschool Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children. “It’s my job to teach them how to hear and how to speak and how to communicate.”

Luzerne IU 18 operates preschool classrooms for Luzerne County’s Early Intervention, run by Hazleton School District. The focus on hearing loss – launched in 2001 when one family couldn’t find specialized services – helps close speech and language gaps that could be two or three years behind.

In a classroom outfitted with specialized carpeting, lighting, and amplification, Zerfoss structures all lessons to encourage speech and language skills. The inclusive classroom strategically brings together typical and hard-of-hearing students because, as Zerfoss says, “I can teach them and teach them, but the best model is to have their typical peers use typical language. Through the years, I’ve been amazed at how children’s language changes because they’re getting common, everyday words and phrases, things that aren’t taught to them but they’re overhearing.” 

IU 18 also serves children with hearing loss from birth to 3, creating a continuum that minimizes disruptions for families and deepens the service providers’ knowledge of children’s needs.

“I have never had a program where parent relationships are so strong,” says Special Education Director Elizabeth Krokos. “The bonds between parent and staff and the relationships my staff have built with the parents are second to none.”

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