Franklin Park special education school puts technology to work for students
Early childhood teacher Tracy Lovell sets up a "smartboard" for Mailee Tamayo, 4, at Enger School's Art and Academics Fair. | Jon Langham~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 22, 2013 6:58AM
FRANKLIN PARK — Enger School in Franklin Park looks like many other public schools.
There are wood doors with the nameplates of teachers, hallways with laminated floors and a gym.
Likewise, its Art and Academic Fair on Feb. 6 looked like any other school fair — tables scattered around the perimeter of the gym, teachers talking to parents, examples of student work on display.
A closer look, however, reveals some devices you might not find in a regular education school. Teacher Amanda Tranchita shows off a DynaVox. It’s the shape of a small television and shows images of actions or objects.
Unlike a television, it tracks the eye movements of the person watching it. A nonverbal student can merely look at an image to choose it.
“The more they use it the more accurate it (tracks),” Tranchita said.
Enger is the special education school for Mannheim District 83. Students attending the school have a range of moderate to severe disabilities, including autism, cerebral palsy and developmental delays according to speech therapist Beth Erwin.
“Our students, some of them aren’t able to point or use typical classroom tools or turn pages of their books by themselves,” Erwin said. “They aren’t able to use their hands or grasp a pencil.”
To compensate, Enger School uses various devices referred to collectively as assistive technology.
There are voice output devices — like physicist Stephen Hawking uses — to create sentences.
There are large buttons at the end of a flexible tube that resemble an octopus tentacle with a sucker at the end. Students lacking the use of their arms can press the button with their head.
In the corner of the gym such a button is hooked up to a blender. Teacher aide Janet Hagawith explains that the device can be preprogrammed for chop, mix, beat, cream, etc.
“Its for students who may have trouble manipulating small buttons of the blender,” Hagawith said.
Even when the devices look the same, they may be used differently.
“Special education has always had assistive devices,” said Debbie Motycka, technology director for District 83. “Now with iPads, they’re using the same tools as regular education students but the applications can be differentiated for individual student needs.”
White Boards, for example, have been in use in the four regular education schools in District 83. A sort of electronic version of a blackboard, it’s connected to both the teacher’s and students’ computers.
Tracy Lovell, who teaches three- and four-year-olds at Enger, creates many of her own programs for the White Board. One program helps students learn to count. Another allows them to pick a song or spell their name by touching the White Board. That’s good for students who don’t have the fine motor skills to type or use a computer mouse.
“You can teach just about anything,” Lovell said.
There are challenges to assistive technology.
“Switches and voice output devices tend to be very expensive because the market is so small,” Erwin said. “When you think of an iPad, you think of touching and interacting with it. For some students, they can’t point. We have to find the technology.”
Still, the benefits seem to outweigh the challenges.
“We didn’t have a science curriculum (for special education students) three years ago,” said Sharon Leatheman, who teachers 6th – 8th grade students.
New software programs, however, have helped special ed students learn science. The increase in learning has also shown up in the yearly ISAT test.
“Its helping us meet the state standards,” Leatheman.
The use of technology will likely grow both at Enger and the regular education schools. During the summer, wireless infrastructure will be strengthened in all the schools.
The district is also conducting a trial this school year on whether to issue iPads to all students.