SINGAPORE - While other pupils in the canteen queued to buy rice, noodles or other food, Mayflower Primary School pupil Janelle Jurng chose to buy a pink jelly snack.
At first the six-year-old shook her head at suggestions that she buy a proper meal. But after some prompting by teachers and her buddies, she decided on chicken rice.
Minutes later, a smiling Janelle walked away from the stall with her plate, accompanied by her buddies, Primary 5 pupils Charlotte Chua and Justine Supan.
Janelle is one of six deaf children enrolled in Primary 1 this year at Mayflower Primary School. The school in Ang Mo Kio is the first primary school to take in children with moderate to profound hearing loss who use sign language.
Previously, these students could only attend special education schools.
Mayflower Primary, which uses sign language as the medium of teaching for pupils with hearing loss, is also the first school in Singapore to adopt a co-teaching model instead of having just translators.
A specialised teacher proficient in sign language will teach alongside the mainstream teacher for core subjects such as English and Mathematics. An educational sign interpreter supports non-core subjects such as physical education, art and music.
The Straits Times spent a morning at the school on Monday (Feb 5) observing how its first batch of children with hearing loss - all in the same class - are fitting in.
A month into the year, Janelle is settling in well - readily answering teachers' questions and even scoring full marks for spelling tests.
She listens attentively to her teachers and participates happily, whether it is tapping rhythms in a music lesson or reading a picture book with her classmates.
"I like to play with my friends, and I like running with them," said Janelle. "I like school very much... and PE lessons."
Janelle had spent three years attending an Early Interventions Programme for Infants and Children at Canossian School, which caters to young children with special needs.
Her mother Christina Lim, 30, said it is good to integrate children with hearing loss into the mainstream school community.
Initially, she was worried that Janelle, who wears cochlear implants in both ears, would not be able to cope in the mainstream school environment. But the private language tutor is relieved that her daughter is adjusting well so far.
"Since she has shown cognitive ability to follow in school… why not (place her in a mainstream school)? At least she has an equal chance of being able to learn," Madam Lim said.
About four in 1,000 babies in Singapore are born with hearing loss each year. About one in 1,000 will have severe hearing loss.
Teachers said putting these children with their hearing peers has benefits for both groups.
Ms Barbara D'Cotta, one of the two specialised teachers from the Singapore Association for the Deaf, said: "It's a way for young children to learn and understand that there are children different from them, but at the same time they act and behave in the same way."
Mayflower Primary has trained a handful of Primary 5 pupils in simple signing. These older pupils are paired with a child with hearing loss during play and recess time.
"It's not very difficult to learn sign language once we get the hang of it," said 11-year-old Charlotte, one of Janelle's buddies. "Sometimes I ask her what she wants to eat or whether she wants to go play."
"It's very fun to hang out with her. She's always a happy girl and every time I see her, she always gives me a smile," said Charlotte, who has become good friends with Janelle.
Mayflower Primary's principal Lim-Chua Siow Ling said: "If you just take a very quick glance at the classroom on a regular day, you can't really tell who is the hearing loss child or who is the one that has hearing. They are communicating using very basic sign language as well as gestures.
"We as adults have a lot to learn from them. It is almost a barrier-free environment when we see them communicate, how they accept one another."
Mrs Lim-Chua said it is heartening that the children do not just tolerate, but accept each other. Any difficulty in communicating is resolved quickly by gesturing, writing short notes and playing, she said.
Mayflower Primary will take in 40 to 50 deaf pupils across the different levels in six to seven years' time.
As for Madam Lim, she wants Janelle to "go through life like any other child".
"The only thing we can do as parents is to make sure that if she has a need, to provide that need for her. The rest is up to her."