School opens in Chattanooga for speech-, hearing-impaired pre-k students

photo Instructor Marty Dunagan shows her student Shaw Miller a recorder while teaching her preschool class for deaf and hearing impaired children about instruments Friday at Brainerd United Methodist Church in Chattanooga.

It looks and sounds like a typical school: cubbies, bulletin boards and tiny chairs. Kids run around the gym, a few shriek aloud. Sounds of bouncing basketballs and plastic scooters echo far beyond the basketball court. Except at the Marty Center, there's a good chance some of the kids don't even realize all the racket they're making.

The center is designed especially for youngsters with hearing and speech impairments. Named after teacher Marty Dunagan, a longtime teacher of the deaf in Chattanooga, the center is celebrating its opening this week at Brainerd United Methodist Church, which now houses several educational programs for children with special needs.

After another program closed its doors, Dunagan opened her own school to serve children from 18 months to 6 years old. The school mixes typically developing students with those who have hearing, speech and language impairments.

"This is a program like none other," said Casey Hobbs, whose 3-year-old son Gregory attends the school.

They commute from LaFayette, Ga., each weekday to the school because of how much progress they've seen in their son. He suffers from hearing loss. The family works on communication as much as they can at home, but Hobbs said the intense instruction her son gets with Dunagan, who herself is deaf, has made the difference. He's speaking more and is getting much more preparation for school than many day cares could offer, she said.

"Had he not been working with someone who was deaf herself and had so much experience working with speech- and language-impaired children, he wouldn't have reached his full potential," Hobbs said.

Public schools do offer help for children with hearing, language and speech impairments. But Dunagan said her program has a different aim. It's inclusive in nature, so children aren't separated because of their disabilities. And it's designed to prepare students enough so that they can be "mainstreamed" into their regular zoned schools by kindergarten or first grade, she said.

"The first five years of a child's life are the most important for learning language and auditory skills," she said. "If they don't get it those first five years, they're going to be delayed the rest of their lives."

But if history is any lesson, it's not just the little ones who will benefit from the new preschool, said Davonna Mason.

"This is where a lot of miracles happen for parents," she said, "not just the kids."

Mason's deaf daughter attended a similar preschool program also led by Marty Dunagan about 20 years ago. Her daughter, Summer, learned sign language and went on to regular public schools and college. The program also taught the family how to sign and work with their daughter. So now they're pitching in to help get the new school off the ground.

"After all she's done for our family," Mason said, "I want to do whatever I can for the school."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at or 423-757-6249.