Carle auditory school graduation

Dr. Michael Novak jokes around with patient Kelson Kuipers, 8, of LeRoy in the lobby at Carle’s ECHO program Thursday, June 18, 2020, in Urbana.

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URBANA — The group hugs and handshakes will be missing this year, but the 10 kids graduating from the Carle Auditory Oral School today will still each have their moments to shine.

All 10 graduates, plus two others at the school for both kids with hearing loss and normal hearing, will be making speeches.

But it won’t be graduation as usual. It will be graduation pandemic-safety-style, with each child walking up to a stage individually at Gibson City’s Harvest Moon Drive-In, and their families watching and listening from their cars.

Carle is using a combined Zoom and live format to pull this off. And just like all other graduations over the years, Dr. Michael Novak wouldn’t miss this one for the world.

“It is truly one of the highlights of my year to be there and see these children give their own speeches, write their own speeches, talking, interacting,” he said. “The families are just thrilled. They have all worked so hard to get to this point.”

This year’s graduation will be an especially emotional one for Novak, the pioneering otolaryngologist who started the cochlear implant program at Carle in 1985 and Carle’s Expanding Children’s Hearing Opportunities program in 1987.

Also the first surgeon in the state to perform a pediatric cochlear implant, which provides a sense of sound through an implanted device, Novak plans to retire next month after 39 years at Carle.

These programs were started at Carle through a “leap of faith,” recalled Novak, who is currently ECHO’s medical director.

The Carle Auditory Oral School, called CAOS for short, was started in 1997 under a former name, St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf at Carle.

Since the start of the school, more than 100 deaf and hard-of-hearing children, plus 130 children with typical hearing, have gone through the program, according to Carle.

Kids without hearing impairment attending the school become important models of speech and language for kids with hearing impairment, Novak said. Four normal-hearing kids will be among the 10 graduates today.

The school in Urbana draws kids from as far as an hour away, and some families have relocated to Champaign-Urbana from other communities and states to send their children to the school, according to Carle spokeswoman Jamie Mullin.

Earlier graduates have now finished college, and in some cases, graduate school, and have started their careers, said CAOS Director Danielle Chalfant. Others are in high school, taking part in marching band and sports, or settling into their new elementary schools, she said.

They’re “forging new friendships, exploring extracurricular activities and navigating classrooms where they might be the only children using hearing aids or cochlear implants in their entire school or communities,” she said.

Children typically get started with the ECHO program as infants and most of them graduate from the school after kindergarten or first or second grades and then progress to their community schools, Novak said.

Kids graduate when they’re ready, he said, “because our goals never change, to see this child doing really well in their home environment.”

The importance of beginning to work with deaf and hearing-impaired children when they’re infants is one of the many ways this field has advanced over his nearly four decades at Carle, Novak said. Critical brain pathways begin developing even before birth, and waiting to work with children until they’re toddlers is too late, he said.

These days, children typically undergo hearing screenings after birth and Carle begins working with those who need help developing speech and hearing at two or three months old and stays with these kids even as they reach adulthood, Novak said.

The Carle team has also seen the necessity of working intensely with children and their families after a cochlear implant to help develop their hearing and speech, he said.

One of Novak’s most memorable moments of his career happened 16 years ago. The patients were nine-month-old twins who underwent surgery at Carle to receive bilateral cochlear implants in what then may have been a medical first, the youngest set of identical twins to receive implants in each of their ears.

Those twins are teenagers now, and “just doing amazingly well,” Novak said.

He also remembers vividly the day another dream was achieved — relocating the school and ECHO program together in a new building of their own.

Novak said his wife, Lee Ann Rotz (a retired pediatric audiologist and one of the original ECHO team members), keeps track of all the children who have gone through the program.

“She builds rapport with kids and she taught me so much about families, kids with hearing loss and growing up with deafness in the community,” he said.

Retirement for Novak won’t mean walking away from Carle, though he won’t be seeing patients on a regular basis any longer.

He plans to remain in the community, continue some ongoing research and will still serve as medical director of the ECHO program

He also plans to continue helping out with fundraising.

“We are trying to create an endowed fund, to make sure the ECHO program is funded satisfactorily for the future,” he said.

While he loves his work, Novak said, he wants to spend a fair amount of time after he retires being grandpa.

“I have seven grandchildren that I desperately want to spend more time with,” he said. “They’re growing up, and I have not been able to spend the time that I’d like to.”