Hands and Voices Interview:
Improving Acoustics
in the Classroom
Through a Parent's Perspective
An interview with Melanie Doyle

A Hands & Voices National member, Melanie Doyle is also a founding member of Parents' Voices, a non-profit group dedicated to advocacy for classroom acoustics for functionally hard of hearing children. For more information, check out their website at www.parentsvoice.org.or e e-mail group@parentsvoice.org. Melanie is a mother of a son, Crosby, who has a severe to profound hearing loss and attends public school in San Diego .

Q:  What should parents do before approaching their school district and requesting acoustic modifications for their child's classroom?

A:   First and foremost, parents need to become educated about acoustics .  You don't need to be the expert, but I found that when I had more working knowledge on the subject than district staff I had greater influence.  For example, do you know what reverberation time and ambient noise levels are and how they can be measured?  What are the proposed standards and when are they likely to become part of the ADA Accessibility Guidelines?  There are many websites, publications and listserves that can help parents get a working knowledge on the subject.

Second, parents need to learn how the system works in their school district.  Who are the power players and who are the potential staff you may be working with on the project?  You need to know reporting relationships and have contact information for everyone involved (It became a side joke when I asked for business cards from anyone who showed up at our meetings).  Having e-mail addresses came in handy.  I also made it a point to get to know the on-site custodian which also made a difference in our successful outcome.

Finally, I researched the laws and program guidelines that applied to acoustics.  Knowing my son's rights was critical to the success of this project.  Again, you don't need to be an expert, but having the knowledge to refute statements of "fact" by the district is essential.

Q:  How did you approach the school and convince them to make the modifications?

A:  The process began by having informal discussions with district personnel to see what their general understanding of acoustics was and get a feel for what their issues might be.  I met or had discussions with my son's educational audiologist, Low Incidence program manager, D/HH resource teacher, and facility maintenance staff.  This was very helpful since I could then use the information to prepare for meetings and be a step ahead.  Con  cerns that surfaced included:

Who will pay for the accommodations (school site, Section 504, or special education)?

  • Who will do the measurements and analysis?
  • Who will do the actual modifications?
  • Does the district staff have the necessary equipment, training, and/or certifications to carry out any of these functions?

Through networking, I was also fortunate to get the support of Owens Corning who agreed to contribute services and material towards the project.  I then approached the district with this resource and suggested that Curie Elementary be used as a pilot project for developing acoustic modifications.  I made sure to distribute articles and information regarding the Access Board's Response to Petition for Rulemaking on Classroom Acoustics to let them know that this was in fact going to become law.

The bottom line, of course, was writing ambient noise and reverberation times into Crosby 's IEP.

Q: What acoustic information was included in your son's IEP?             

A:  First of all, I don't want to make it sound like it was a piece of cake to put these noise and reverberation criteria into my son's IEP.  Early on, the school district stated they weren't required to make acoustic changes since the proposed standards were not yet legally binding.  I was prepared for this and responded by saying, "Yes, you're right.  The classroom acoustic standards are not yet law, but we are here to discuss my son's Individualized Education Plan. Based on his needs, Crosby requires acoustic modifications to his learning environments.  The ADA classroom acoustic standards are secondary to this issue.

I requested that the acoustic recommendations from ASHA's position paper be written into Crosby 's IEP.  The district staff wanted the ASHA publication attached to the IEP, but I was firm that it needed to be written into the team notes.  This seems to carry more weight than an attachment, since a parent can request to have anything attached to the IEP notes.  Specific wording is very important, and although the levels on my son's IEP are more stringent than the proposed regulations (which weren't available at the time), I was able to get the district to agree to them.  Crosby's IEP states: Acoustic modifications will be made as necessary to Crosby 's learning environments: 1) Unoccupied classroom noise levels should not exceed 30dB (A) Or Noise Criteria (NC) 20 dB curve, and 2) Reverberation times should not exceed 0.4 seconds.

Please note that at the time I didn't truly understand what these standards really meant or what the district would have to do to meet them.  I just knew they were important!

Q: How many rooms received acoustic modifications at Curie Elementary?

A:  I specifically requested that the ambient noise and reverberation time standards apply to all learning environments and not just his classroom.  In addition to his classroom, the auditorium and speech therapy room received modifications. There are many programs and assemblies that take place in the auditorium. If a D/HH child is auditory/oral and does not have access to verbal instruction, then he cannot learn.  As a comparison, when a child who uses a wheelchair does not have a ramp to get into her classroom, then she does not have access to education.

Q:  What challenges or resistance did you encounter?

A:   A related challenge to the project was the fact that the home school for my son had a "loft" or open-classroom plan.  And although the IEP team agreed that this was not an appropriate placement for Crosby , I could not get them to agree to place him at the next closest non-loft school to his residence.  It took me a good month of having conversations with key district personnel before the Assistant Superintendent approved the placement of both Crosby and his twin brother Riley at Curie Elementary.  I was then able to meet with the principal and request that she designate the classroom that he would be attending.  This enabled me to talk about making modifications to the specific school site.

Another challenge was that Owens Corning was not a local firm and was new to classroom acoustics.  There were many long-distance consultations and negotiations.  In essence I became the broker between district staff and Owens Corning (keep in mind there were many layers of people in both of these organizations).  Ultimately this turned out to be good since I had more control of the situation.

Q: How did the teachers, therapists, other staff and parents respond to the changes?  Is there anything you would do differently to help them adjust to the modifications?

A:   I expected reactions from staff who had their environment changed, but I did not expect the degree of frustration that they and others (including some parents) expressed.  To her credit the teacher was very patient and understanding.  We had to move the panels in her room around several times, especially when they blocked the windows (thus air circulation and light!) which made the room cave-like.

There are a number of things I would do differently to educate staff and others impacted by the project.  Although the entire staff of the school received an in-service on the needs of Crosby and acoustics in general, more time needs to be spent with the primary service providers who will be impacted by the modifications.  This information needs to come from the "experts", not the parent.  The teachers and speech therapist need to have a clear idea of what their rooms will look like, sound and smell like (the glue to secure some of the panels was a bit overwhelming for a few days).  Initially, the speech therapist had a difficult time adjusting to the changes and was somewhat skeptical about the benefits to Crosby and the other children she serves.  The principal needs to be educated on the benefits in order to field questions from staff and parents.  Parents expressed concerns about the panels falling and the music teacher wanted to know if they negatively impacted performances.  I even made a presentation at a PTA meeting to address some of the issues that were raised.  Also, I would spend more time with the school custodian and have him more involved in the planning meetings.

Q:  What were the actual modifications that were made?  Do you feel you made sacrifices in achieving good acoustics?

A:  To meet Crosby 's needs, a number of accommodations were made:

  • Panels were placed in his classroom, speech therapy room and auditorium.  The panels in his classroom are removable and will be moving with him from year to year.
  • Double-pained windows, a new roof vent, and quieter clock were placed in the speech therapy room.
  • The toilet and clock were replaced in his classroom.
  • Four aluminum ramps near his classroom were covered with rubber matting.
  • A "Quiet Zone" was painted in areas surrounding his classroom and speech therapy room

I did need to make a number of sacrifices, but I felt these were necessary in order to maintain good relations with district staff.  It is important to understand that an appropriate learning environment is a balance of acoustics, temperature and lighting.  The acoustical engineer's recommendation required replacing the louvered windows in the classroom with double-paned windows.  Since the windows were the main source of ventilation, it did not make sense to replace them since they would be open "in real life". Of course, I could have required the district to meet the standards as written in the IEP, but this would have required installation of an HVAC system at a cost of approximately $20,000 - $25,000.  The district then starting talking about modifying one room that Crosby would stay in for his entire elementary school years and require teachers to rotate through the room.  Classrooms are a teacher's world, and I envisioned being greatly disliked by all of Crosby 's teachers!

Q: Could you give us an estimate of the number of children who benefited from the acoustic improvements you initiated, in addition to your own son?

A:  It is well-documented in the literature that all children gain from improved acoustics.  The following specific populations also receive great benefit:

  • D/HH (including children with recurring ear infections)
  • Central Auditory Processing Disorders (CAPD)
  • Learning Disabilities
  • Developmental Delays
  • Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD)
  • Second Language Learners

To translate this into numbers would include the 20 kids in my son's classroom, any child receiving therapy in the speech therapy room, and all the children who used the auditorium benefited from the modifications.

Q: How much time did it take to complete the project?

A: The initial IEP addressing the acoustic standards was written in February 2000 and the modifications were completed in October 2000 (even though I stipulated in a subsequent IEP that the modifications be completed by the time Crosby started school in the fall).  Eight months is too long for a project of this size to take.  Some of the delays in the project included:

  • A significant amount of time was taken negotiating between the Section 504 Office and the Special Education Department to determine who was responsible for funding the project.  This is where some legal research came in handy!  I was able to provide the district documentation that any child who receives an IEP does not require a 504 plan.  This is not typically the role a parent should play, but if I was not persistent in requesting meetings and having discussions, I'm not so sure the project would be completed today.
  • After the project was authorized, some issues arose with the school district about exceeding the dollar limit without going out to bid for the project.  It was also a non-standard process since Owens Corning was partially contributing to the project which caused a few hiccups.
  • The truck delivering the panels ran into an unforeseen delay.  This impacted the speech therapist who had dismantled her room in anticipation of the work being done on a specific date. 

The bottom line .... it will always take longer than you think, so start early!  That means the school principal must be willing to designate (as early as February) which teacher and classroom your child will be in the following year.

Q: Would you estimate the cost involved?

A:  Cost is an important issue for parents to understand.  By law, the cost of accommodations cannot be discussed at IEP meetings.  However, it is my opinion that cost is the main issue in determining necessary accommodations.  The overall cost to the district for all the modifications at Curie Elementary came to $22,000 with Owens Corning donating $10,000 in the form of testing, supervision and product.

Q: How could an acoustical engineer help parents who want to make acoustical changes?

A:  Acoustical engineers can help educate parents about the importance of improved acoustics in the classroom and supply them with information that could be used in IEP meetings.  If needed, professionals could provide a report or participate in the IEP meeting to help convince the district to support these needed modifications.  Engineers who are interested in working with school districts should begin to establish relationships with key district staff.  Until district personnel have the experience and equipment necessary for testing, they will depend upon consultants to complete the work.  Most large districts have the staff to install panels, but would need some supervision during the process.  Providing this service and making recommendations that are cost-effective will work to everyone's benefit.

Q: What advice would you give to other parents in working with their school districts?

A:   One of the parent's primary role is to educate others about D/HH issues.  For example the work request stated, "A profoundly deaf student requires an acoustically treated learning environment per 2/2/00 IEP."  At a planning meeting I talked about residual hearing and how my son, who has a severe-to-profound loss, was able to hear with hearing aids.   I even brought in his hearing aids and had the staff listen to them with a stethoscope while I walked up and down the aluminum ramp in hard-soled shoes.  The gained an appreciation of why containing the noise was so important.

Some other thoughts include:

  • Start early, the school bureaucracy moves slowly.
  • Be prepared for the district to say that an FM system is sufficient to meet your child's need (it isn't .  even though FM systems improve the signal-to-noise ratio they can also amplify unwanted noise).
  • Be flexible and be willing to back down when needed. 
  • Be a broker of information (I played a key role in making sure individuals spoke with each other). 
  • If needed get support from professionals (e.g. letters from acoustic engineers, your child's audiologist) which specifically support your child's needs for appropriate acoustics.
  • Finally, don't forget to say thank you.  When the project was complete, I recognized the hard work of the project manager (who frequently met with me before and after school and on the weekends) by sending a letter to the superintendent.



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