Jackie DeCamp, a paraeducator in the Adaptive Support Center at Cedar Heights Middle School, helps Melissa use her iPad to communicate. HEIDI SANDERS, Kent Reporter

iPads help Kent School District students communicate

Students with special needs in the Kent School District are learning to communicate with help from iPads.

The district recently purchased the devices for students in the Adaptive Support Center (ASC) at Cedar Heights Middle School in Covington, which serves seventh- and eighth-graders from throughout the district with intellectual and/or multiple disabilities creating profound learning gaps when compared with typically developing peers.

Carmen Rahm, the district’s chief information officer, saw the need for the iPads during a visit to ASC several months ago.

“We saw that the one-to-one (laptop) program that works for 95 percent of the traditional students in the mainstream classrooms wasn’t working for the Adaptive Support Center because of the students’ inability to interact with the machines,” Rahm said. “One of the students had his (personal) device and the students were fighting over it. They wanted to grab it out of his hands.”

A few weeks after receiving the iPads, many of the 18 students in the program are putting them to use. One student uses his iPad to learn his name. When he correctly chooses his name from a list, he is rewarded with a celebration on his device. Another student practices typing his name and phone number on his iPad – an important skill that could help him if he gets lost or needs to fill out an application.

A nonverbal student can use Proloquo2Go – an Augmentative and Alternative Communication app on the device – to express herself by selecting symbols to say how she feels or what she wants to do.

“We have noticed a huge difference in her behavior as she has gotten used to the iPad,” said Anne Layton, an ACS teacher at Cedar Heights. “She used to just sit and scream, and we were like, ‘What do you want?’ That still happens from time to time, but the instance of it is far less because she has a way to communicate instead of us trying guess, ‘Do you want this? Do you want this?’ Then she just gets more upset, and we can’t do anything at all. Now, she is able to tell us what she wants and what she needs.”

Before receiving the iPads, a nonverbal student used printed communication books to share how they felt or what they needed.

“It was very limited,” said Cassie Allegri, a speech language pathologist in the Kent School District. “We could only put in five or 10 various picture symbols. With the iPads and Proloquo, we are able to have anything and everything, and we are able to customize it to each student.”

A iPad is also easier to carry around than a bulky communication book.

“Carrying around a communication book draws more attention to the student,” Allegri said. “Everyone has an iPad or phones or whatever, so when they are carrying those around, not as much attention is drawn to them.”

It is great to see a student express themselves through technology, Layton said.

“It is pretty amazing to see the capacity they have,” she said. “You know that they have that, but to see that is really cool.”

The unused laptops are now being used by other students in the district, Rahm said.

“We put a $500 iPad in a student’s hand, and we took the $750 laptop that wasn’t being use and we gave it to students who need the $750 laptop that we would have had to go out and buy,” he said. “We can be creative with our funding. We can use our funding more efficiently. We can reach out to each student and not try to have each student with one blanket standard.

“It is important to have standards in a school district. You have got to have standards for efficiency. You have got to have standards for your staff, but you still have to recognize there are places where you have to have the exception to the standard.”

Cedar Heights ASC was the pilot program for the iPads. With its success, the district plans to expand the program to other ASC classrooms, Rahm said.

“We realize that we are making a difference,” he said. “It is all about education. (Superintendent Calvin) Watts has made it very clear from the first day I interviewed with him that we do not want a district that is known for great technology. We want a district that is known for what it achieves with great technology. The ultimate achievement is learning and everything we are seeing in this room is learning.”