1999 Conference Proceedings

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Findings of An Innovative Training Project: Enhancing the Capacity of School Personnel in Maine to Promote the Use of Alternative Communication Strategies for Students with Disabilities

Lynn Gitlow, Ph.D., OTR/L.
Elizabeth DePoy, Ph.D., OTR
Alan Kurtz, M.Ed.
Deborah Gilmer, M.Ed
Barbara Mintz, M.A., CCC-SLP
Colette Bilodeau, B.A.

This paper presents the final evaluation data of a training project designed to enhance the capacity of school personnel to promote the use of alternative communication strategies for children with severe communication impairments. The project entitled, Augmentative, Assistive, and Facilitated Communication, was conducted by The Center for Community Inclusion, Maine's UAP at the University of Maine in July ,1997-July, 1998, and was funded by the Maine Department of Education. It addressed the needs of children (3-21) using an interdisciplinary, capacity building model and was staffed by a speech/language pathologist, special educators, and an occupational therapist. There were two components of the project.

First, ten interdisciplinary teams supporting students with severe communication impairments participated in depth technical assistance and support that was provided in the student's school/classroom over the project year.

Second, information dissemination activities and materials development efforts were shared throughout the state.

A summary of the project evaluation data are the topic of this paper. The implications these data have for further program development are presented.

Project Evaluation Findings

Of the ten original teams, nine completed the year (one student moved in December and the new school district was not interested in participating). In May each member of the nine teams was sent a project evaluation designed to answer the following evaluation questions:

  1. What degree of satisfaction with the technical assistance was articulated by participants?
  2. To what extent did participants perceive that the technical assistance influenced the student?
  3. What future training needs and methods are preferred by participants?

The evaluation survey used was a 30 item instrument developed for this project and content validated prior to administration. Twelve items examined participants' satisfaction with the technical assistance and their perceptions of the degree to which the technical assistance influenced the student. Contained within those twelve items were three indices: one examining satisfaction with knowledge acquisition, one measuring satisfaction with skill acquisition and one examining participants' expectations for future use of knowledge and skills acquired from the technical assistance. Overall satisfaction was ascertained by summing the responses to the twelve items. All indices, total satisfaction and item responses are measured on a four-point scale with ascending scores indicating greater satisfaction.

The second half of the questionnaire was designed to ascertain participants' preferred methods to increase their capacity to address and meet student needs for augmentative, assistive technology and facilitated communication. Two open-ended items were included so that participants could comment on future technical assistance and training needs.

All data were entered into SYSTAT, a data analysis software program, and descriptive statistics were computed to answer the evaluation questions.

The data reveal that all the participants were satisfied with the overall technical assistance and the overwhelming majority were satisfied on all three indices. Item analysis revealed that participants rated their learning of new knowledge and skill more highly than they rated the degree to which their expectations were met. Because we did not ask about expectations, we cannot comment on this finding in more detail. However, even scores regarding expectations, while lower than actual skill and knowledge acquisition, were still in the satisfied range. Additionally participants indicated that the technical assistance did positively influence students and their future achievement.

In examining future preferences for learning, there was a clear preference for the establishment and use of regional based interdisciplinary expert teams. On-demand technical assistance, continuing education workshops and a centralized resource center were also ranked highly by participants.

Discussion

The project's intent was to build the capacity of the ten participating teams to assess for and support the use of technology and augmentative communication, first for the ten students identified in application materials, and then incrementally other school district students with severe communication impairments. While the nine students completing the project gained at least preliminary communication programs that represented the full range of technology from "no tech to high tech," it is unclear the degree to which the teams will be able to generalize the skills and knowledge acquired to other students.

It became clear, early in the project, that the teams were stretched beyond their means in typically rural, resource poor school districts where funding has deteriorated for many years. Funding for release time (i.e. substitutes) was not available in many of the participating districts thus finding time for collaboration was challenging. In two of the districts, the speech/language clinician changed at least once throughout the year and in two others the related services personnel (including the speech/language clinician) was an independent contractor or worked in multiple schools or neighboring districts and his/her time was not flexible or conducive to collaborative teaming. The students each had unique and challenging needs requiring extensive resources and expertise. However, in small districts these students were likely to be one of only a couple of students with needs as great thus limiting the transferability of the skills and knowledge acquired by team members.

The findings of the project evaluation were curious and thought provoking for future efforts: although the teams were satisfied with the technical assistance and the skills and knowledge acquired in this intensive, on site model of technical assistance, the evaluation findings suggested that the teams would prefer to use regionally based expert teams who would come in and provide resources and direct services for students with severe communication impairments.


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