Ahead of the Game Iowa’s Riverside school district took a chance on assistive technology for its special education students, and the risk paid off. See how your school district can have similar success.
Students in the commons area work on Kurzweil 3000 computers.
Five years ago, as a small-scale experiment, Iowa's Riverside Community School District in rural Pottawattamie County began using assistive technology for kids with reading and writing disabilities. "Our 680-student district was a guinea pig of sorts," says Superintendent Robert Busch, who entered into an agreement to pilot high-tech equipment for about 100 students identified as having learning disabilities.
Now the elementary school widely uses Co:Writer, a word-prediction program that relies on voice output to help kids spell and write correctly. The district's middle and high schools use Kurzweil 3000, an optical character recognition (OCR) and test program with voice output.
Today, assistive technology is a regular component of Riverside's instructional program. Students with disabilities have priority when it comes to using technology devices, but non-disabled students now have access to the equipment as well.
Jeff*, who is big for his age, used his size to intimidate his teachers at Riverside. A non-reader with significant disabilities stemming from visual perceptual difficulties, Jeff's frustration and loud outbursts impeded his overall learning.
In seventh grade, Jeff had a breakthrough when he learned how to use Kurzweil 3000 for both reading and writing. "Prior to using assistive technology, Jeff was defensive and non-compliant—to the point of being confrontational," says Cinda Rachow, a special education consultant for Riverside. "Once he became more adept, his negative attitude and resistance diminished. In fact, he began to request extra print materials that he could read in digital form."
Brian*, another Riverside student with reading and writing disabilities, resented being singled out when teachers and paraeducators read to him. As a result, he often shut down and withdrew from classroom lessons. During an evaluation by an assistive technology consultant, Brian wadded up a piece of paper and threw it on the floor, shouting, "I can't write!"
Brian blossomed when his fifth-grade teacher taught him how to use digital text with Kurzweil 3000. He easily mastered the software and, at age 11, taught paraeducators how to use it. As he became more skilled, his teachers tapped him to be a peer tutor, showing other students how to work with the software. Now in eighth grade, Brian often helps visiting teachers and other educators who come to see the assistive technology program in action.
The proof is in the numbers
District records show that since Riverside adopted Co:Writer and Kurzweil 3000, scores in eighth- and 11th-grade reading and science, two areas tested annually, have improved for students across the board. For kids with individual education plans (IEPs), special education teachers credit the use of assistive technology for overall improvement in reading goals. "Our special education staff really feels that this program has made a difference," says Busch.
In eighth-grade reading, scores from the Iowa Test of Basic Skills show the number of students in the low-performance group declined from 24 to 14 percent, while the number of students in the high-performance group rose from 9.3 to 14 percent. In 11th-grade science, scores from the Iowa Test of Educational Development show the number of students in the low-performance group declined from 20 to 12.5 percent, while the number of those in the proficient group rose from 43.8 to 71.4 percent.
According to Busch, the cost for incorporating assistive technology into classrooms has been minimal. The district was able to load the Kurzweil 3000 program onto current computers, saving on capital outlay for new hardware. In addition, paraprofessionals were trained to handle many routine tasks, such as scanning books into computers and making the programs user-friendly for kids of all ages, which helped to avoid adding new salaries.
During the adoption phase, regional and district staff trained teachers and aides, which also kept costs down. On 10 Wednesdays throughout the school year, teachers and paraprofessionals attended one-hour "Late Start" sessions, from 7:30–8:30 a.m., during which they practiced techniques and shared tips on using the software in their classrooms.
"At first, we saw a lot of reluctance from teachers," says Denise
*All students' names have been changed.
Young, who teaches special education at the high school and is an assistive technology consultant for the district. "They felt that if the student couldn't do it on his own, why did they have to make all these accommodations?" As the staff saw kids become more independent and began receiving higher-quality work, their attitude improved. "I think they're starting to see that, just because a student has trouble with reading and writing, it doesn't mean he can't be successful," says Young. "They're realizing that assistive technology is a tool to see if a child knows the material."
A history of inclusion Riverside has practiced inclusion for about 11 years. "Teachers are accepting of a wide range of kids' performance levels; they're accustomed to dealing with many learning styles," says Rachow. "Often, an LD kid will tell me, 'I learn differently, but I don't want to be different.'" Rachow does a lot of processing with the LD students to make sure they understand that their brains work differently—and that being different is neither good nor bad. "We talk a lot about that concept," she says.
Young says that the software helps the LD students write age-appropriate sentences and perform more comparably to their peers in all classes. "I work a lot on boosting their confidence, because without that, they're not going to catch on."
"Assistive technology provides a tremendous social benefit," says Superintendent Busch. LD kids, he says, are able to learn alongside their classmates, and—true to the concepts of mainstreaming and inclusion—they're able to participate fully in classroom learning.
The benefits of using assistive technology reach beyond Riverside's 100 students recognized as having learning disabilities. "At all grade levels, non-readers and students with specific reading problems are trained and encouraged to use the computer programs without restriction," says Busch, who points to Riverside's rising test scores as evidence that assistive technology works.
One final, but vital, reason that this district embraced assistive technology is because of the backing it got from board members. "The assistive technology program probably wouldn't have gotten off the ground without ongoing support from our board of education," says Busch. Board members were in the information loop during the development process and the board is "one hundred percent supportive of inclusion," he adds. For this reason, it was a simple step—instead of a long stretch—for the district to make a long-term commitment to assistive technology.