By Eric Rangus
The boss’s office is just steps from the main entrance. One floor-to-ceiling window faces the front parking lot; another looks out into the lobby, in full view of everyone coming and going. For Comer Yates 74C 84L, executive director of the Atlanta Speech School, the intent isn’t to spy on those who wander past.
“If I act like we run this tense, businesslike operation, we mask what we try to be as a school,” says Yates, who recently began his fourteenth year at the school, one of the country’s oldest and most respected therapeutic and educational centers for children and adults with speech, language, and learning disabilities. “So I try to reflect the qualities that we have here in my relationships with people.”
That means literal transparency and a refreshing openness—with a dash of fun.
As he walks the halls, Yates’s quick cadence matches the youthful energy bouncing off the walls of the school’s colorful corridors. “This is a safe, joyful place for children,” he says.
It can be noisy, too. Children are never asked to be quiet, which might seem to be a recipe for anarchy, but actually serves to convey the beauty—and importance—of language. For children who struggle with communication skills, what could be better than permission to speak freely?
For Yates, a practicing attorney when he accepted the position in 1998, the Speech School marked a return to his first love—teaching. Following his graduation from Emory in 1974, Yates spent several years as a high school teacher and, after earning his law degree, he taught at the School of Law as adjunct faculty and also led the mock trial team at southwest Atlanta’s Therrell High School for nearly two decades. Yates earned a prestigious 11Alive Community Service Award for that work. He recently was reappointed by Governor Nathan Deal to the Georgia Commission on Hearing Impaired and Deaf Persons.
Yates sees one of his major roles as connecting the school with like-minded partners who share the school’s mission of helping children achieve full potential through language and literacy—and “find their voice for a lifetime,” Yates says.
Founded in 1938 by Katherine Hamm as a facility primarily focused on educating children with hearing loss (her son was deaf), the Speech School now includes three programs. One, named for Hamm, is for children who are deaf or hard of hearing; another is for children with dyslexia; and the third is a preschool for children with speech and language delays.
The Speech School also houses five clinical programs, diagnostic facilities, and a mainstream preschool where youngsters from the Hamm Center blend with kids without hearing loss in order to ensure that they are ready to move on to their neighborhood schools.
Some 1,800 children and adults are served annually, and Yates is proud that no student has ever been turned away for financial reasons. Recently, the school’s reach has expanded to include teacher training through its Rollins Center for Language and Learning. The O. Wayne Rollins Foundation–funded center focuses on providing professional development to teachers of children from low-income families who are caught in an intergenerational cycle of illiteracy and poverty.
Yates says when he started at the school, he lacked a background in special education, but, “What I could provide was the accountability and accessibility.”
If there is any doubt about that, just press your nose against the glass and take a look.