Once Mary and Deno Photinakis started a family, their old, creaky house in Gaithersburg got to feeling a little crowded. By the time their daughter hit the terrible twos, they were definitely ready for a new place.
The couple looked in Loudoun County, where a reasonable mortgage could still fetch a four-bedroom home, and they signed a contract in March 2003 on a brand-new house in a neighborhood full of other young families.
But while the finishing touches were being put on their new kitchen, the Photinakises developed concerns about their daughter. They suspected that her frustrated outbursts were more than a passing phase, and it worried them that she wasn't learning to speak as quickly as some of her friends. Finally they decided to have her hearing checked.
The audiologist told them that Christina, by then 31/2, had profound hearing loss, the most serious category of impairment.
"We were devastated," Mary Photinakis said.
Moving day was fast approaching, and Mary Photinakis began to question whether it was the right decision to abandon Montgomery County's schools, which served hundreds of hearing-impaired children, for a much smaller system.
The couple tried to cancel their house contract but found they were locked in.
They moved in January 2004. A few months later, they found out that their then 9-month-old son, Andrew, was also deaf.
"Had we known about our kids' hearing loss, we never would have moved," she said.
As Loudoun's population has boomed in the past several years, the need for specialized services in its public schools to address students like Christina has grown.
The number of hearing-impaired children in county schools has risen from 23 in 2000 to 63 this year, said Suzanne Jimenez, the district's outgoing supervisor of special education.
The district is working hard to keep up and to match the growing need with qualified educators. By adding four staff positions this year, it will have 24 professionals who work with hearing-impaired children, each requiring unique services -- from sign-language interpretation to speech therapy to assistive technologies.
And it has developed such specialized programs as a half-day preschool, where Christina, now 5, and other children who are learning verbal communication can interact with kids without hearing impairments.
While the school district ramps up its efforts, parents are doing their part to help, too.
When Mary Photinakis came to Loudoun, one of the first things she looked for -- and didn't find -- was a parents support network like one that had been helpful to her in Montgomery County when she and her husband learned of Christina's deafness. She sought out other parents and met with them informally last year.
Then, in January, she formed the Loudoun Association for Children With Hearing Loss. The group, which meets monthly, has about 16 member families. They are hoping faculty or staff members will attend, too.
"One by one by one, trying to shepherd our kid through this maze, we hope to just get through okay," said Susan Maitra, whose 15-year-old son, Ranjan, has profound hearing loss and attends Heritage High School in Leesburg. But with the parents organized into a group, she said, she thinks they can actually effect real changes to the system.
In addition to sharing information and support, the group also made a wish list that Mary Photinakis took to the Board of Supervisors last spring.
The first thing the group asked for was the creation of a staff position for an educational audiologist. While Loudoun County contracted with audiologists at a local medical center, it lacked someone who specifically focused on the acoustics of a classroom setting. They also pushed for a speech pathologist with a background in working with hearing-impaired children and a social worker who could help guide parents through the legal and emotional process of obtaining the right services for their children.
The county agreed to the first two requests. It's now looking for an audiologist, and it hired a speech pathologist, Rachel R. Silien, who has more than 10 years of experience working with deaf and hard-of-hearing students and who has a degree from Gallaudet University.
Jimenez said that the district has not created the social worker position but that one of the goals for this year will be increasing the focus on parent outreach.
She said the parents group has been a help.
"They've really been out there, planting the seeds in the face of increased numbers," Jimenez said.
Maitra said that population growth does pose some problems in terms of keeping pace but that it also has ended some of the isolation her family had felt since 1999, when they moved to Loudoun County and Ranjan was one of only a few deaf students in the district.
By middle school, though, Ranjan was no longer the only deaf student in his school.
When he was in seventh grade, the district adopted a magnet school system. Rather than relying on itinerant teachers, students had the option of traveling to a designated school for special education.
Now he's at Heritage High School, where three other hearing-impaired students attend. He spends most of his day among hearing students; he uses hearing aids and an amplification system to hear the teacher. But he also works with a speech pathologist, and two teachers who work with deaf students full time keep tabs on him to make sure he's following the instruction.
Maitra said she thinks her son is in a good place right now.
"I think there's definitely been a lot of progress," she said.
But she said she thinks there is still much work to do to address the needs of young children, starting with expanding the county's early intervention services for deaf infants and toddlers. She said she hopes the parents group can be a part of those changes.
"I hope the parents group will be a magnet or beacon for other families that are moving in," she said.