2003 Conference Proceedings

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Mary Sagstetter, M.A.Ed.
AbleNet, Inc.
1081 Tenth Ave S.E.
Mpls, MN 55414-1312

Students with severe disabilities need educational opportunities equal to their non-disabled counterparts in order to achieve their full potential. As with all students, real and meaningful learning experiences are the best teaching tools, and for students with disabilities, direct instruction in the context of natural situations is crucial for carryover of learning. Many children with special needs require " over teaching, over time" in order to acquire and retain new knowledge, skills and vocabulary (Mandell and Gold, 1984). In many situations, the quantity and quality of opportunities that are provided for students to learn, participate and communicate does not appear to correlate with the available assistive technology and/or information about its effective use.

Too often children with severe disabilities are not given opportunities to control their world - to make choices with a voice output communication aid, to turn on the power to the blender during a cooking activity, to give their opinion or share how they feel about an issue. Several factors appear to contribute to the under utilization of assistive technology including high staff turnover, limited budgets to purchase devices and attitudes that pre-requisites are necessary for individuals to access to voice output communication aids or other forms of assistive technology.

These host of challenges and barriers exist and have had a significant impact on the ability of educators and school districts to provide quality educational opportunities for students with significant disabilities. Informal observation and anecdotal accounts suggest educators and administrators are challenged as they provide educational opportunities for students with the most significant cognitive and physical disabilities in both included and self-contained settings (Nelson, van Dijk, McDonnell, Thompson, 2002).

When creating a solution to address the challenges and barriers of providing educational opportunities, a theme-based teaching approach would seem to be a viable option to assist in increasing the opportunity for real and meaningful learning experiences, but that would only address part of the need. There still exist the challenges of utilizing technology and addressing the requirements of special educators and administrators. Studies revealed that what a program need to be successful includes: a vision of the end result, a detailed execution plan, effective training, support for obtaining funding and evaluation tools that measure success (AbleNet, 2000).

Keeping the considerations above in mind a project based learning program was created to help all students reach their fullest potential and help prepare them for maximum independence at school, at home and in the community. The project encompassed creating a school-wide newspaper, which is especially relevant due to the fact that it offers a wide variety of skills-based and highly functional educational opportunities to the students. The development of a this comprehensive educational program based on creating a school newspaper has proven successful in overcoming many of the barriers that have limited effective utilization of assistive technology in the classroom and addressing the requirements for a successful program at Bridge View School in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Bridge View School currently has 131 students with moderate to severe disabilities age 5 to 21. The teacher to student ratio at Bridge View is 1:8. Each student is evaluated yearly and an Individual Education Plan (IEP) is completed, which is the basis for setting education goals for the student to achieve during that year. IEP goals are determined by a transdisciplinary team of educators who provide opportunities for students to work on a range of goals to increase functional skills in areas of communication, sensorimotor, cooking, self-care, leisure, vocational, academics and community in order to maximize their potential.

Bridge View School successfully incorporated the five-step comprehensive educational program approach with the students and staff. The five steps included:

1. Creating a Common School Vision
Developed a common vision regarding staff and student outcomes and to develop the necessary degree of energy, motivation, momentum and/or commitment among the entire team to make the vision a reality.

2. Training Strategies
Staff training achieved through hands-on opportunities with assistive technology where team members were charged with the responsibility of providing ongoing support to the rest of the school staff.

3. Monthly Lesson Plans
Incorporated lesson plans, aligned with state standards, designed to create a school newspaper while working on IEP goals and objectives.

4. Funding Support
Specific grant proposals were written and submitted to several funding agencies in an effort to obtain the range of assistive technology that was necessary to fully implement the newspaper program for all 131 students at Bridge View.

5. Program Evaluation
The program evaluation component includes a baseline and post program assessment of staff experience, attitudes, available technology and use.

This five-step approach was key to meeting administrators and educators needs in addressing assistive technology and staff training. Real and meaningful learning experiences in the context of a natural situation of creating a newspaper provided students with the opportunity to practice skills and work on IEP goals through a variety of different activities that engaged their interest accommodated a range of ability levels.

This project based learning program will empower all students to have opportunities to learn, communicate and actively participate in a wide range of functional experiences from cooking, surveying participants, interviewing familiar and unfamiliar people, writing articles to producing and selling the paper. Educators should attend this session if interested in expanding their curriculum in order to provide more cohesive, outcome-based educational programs that meet the needs of this student population.

Suggested Resources:

AbleNet Inc., (2000) Research Information. Mpls, MN

Daniels and Stafford,(1999). Creating Inclusive Classrooms. Children's Resource International, Inc. Washington, D.C.

Mandell, C. J., and Gold, V. (1984). Teaching Handicapped Students. St. Paul. MN. West Publishing Co.

Nelson, C., van Dijk, J., McDonnell, A., Thompson, K. (2002). Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities: A framework for understanding children with severe multiple disabilities. Volume 27, Number 2. P. 97- 11.

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