In Harrison Township’s inclusive classrooms, all students benefit from accessibility tools

Challenge

In Harrison Township’s two schools, inclusivity is the standard. Each grade from kindergarten through 6th has two inclusive classrooms where students with disabilities work alongside their non-disabled peers. Even students with more pronounced physical or communication disabilities who typically work in much smaller classes of their own share some classes with non-disabled students.

For teachers working with students with disabilities across multiple classrooms, coordinating lesson plans and equipping students with the right learning tools wasn’t easy.

“It took a lot of work to manage inclusive classrooms, and it was time-consuming,” says Chad Flexon, Harrison Township’s Supervisor of Instruction, who taught math and language arts in an inclusive classroom for two years.

To adapt lessons to students’ needs, each special education teacher had to exchange paper-based lesson plans with the inclusive classroom teachers—a slow process. The lack of classroom technology also complicated the task of outfitting students with tools for enhancing learning. Harrison Township schools had desktop computer labs and a small number of netbooks for students to use in class. Teachers had to schedule access to the labs; they also had to ensure that students with disabilities could access devices with speech-recognition software or magnified screens.

'We are very mindful of how special education students might become isolated and seen as different from their peers. Chromebooks and G Suite for Education really help us level the playing fields – without students even realising that the playing field has been levelled.'

Chad Flexon, Supervisor of Instruction, Harrison Township School District

Solution

In 2013, the school district began rollout of a 1:1 Chromebook program, along with G Suite for Education and Google Classroom—one grade level at a time over a three-year period. The 3rd and 4th grade classes received Chromebooks first, to allow learners to grow with the devices; 5th and 6th graders received Chromebooks the following year, followed by 2nd graders. The program included Google Certified Educator Level 1 training for all teachers to help them adopt best practices for using technology in lessons.

Flexon took part in the first Chromebook and G Suite rollouts for 3rd and 4th grade classes. He and other teachers quickly realized that Google Classroom could solve the problem of coordinating lesson plans with special education teachers across inclusive classrooms. Instead of passing around lessons on paper or by email and waiting for input from colleagues, the special education teachers could now add lessons to Classroom with just a few clicks, and invite other teachers to adapt the lessons as needed. “Everything can be done in the moment,” Flexon says.

As Flexon and other teachers tested Chromebooks, they also realized students seemed eager to discover features that helped improve learning and comprehension—even before teachers pointed them out. “We saw that some students who had been reluctant writers were more apt to explore features [in] Google Docs,” Flexon says.

Benefits

Built-in accessibility tools for everyone

Before students began using Chromebooks, accessibility tools were typically single-purpose features—like speech-recognition software —that had to be installed on specific devices earmarked for students with disabilities.

“Today, those features are built into Chrome and G Suite,” Flexon says. “So we’re ensuring that students across all grade levels have the opportunity to use them.” Flexon also lets everyone know that students and teachers can customize Chromebook settings just once, and those settings will move with students no matter which device they log into in the future.

Chrissy Rivera, a 3rd grade teacher at Harrison Township School, discovered that features such as the Read&Write Chrome extension from Texthelp, available on the district’s Chromebooks, help all students including those with disabilities. Once students customize their accessibility settings on Chrome OS, those settings move with them as they log into any other Chromebook.

“Several students use text-to-speech or speech-to-text, and it really helped them with reading comprehension,” says Rivera. “One of my students had dyslexia and it was a wonderful tool, since reading was a bit of a challenge. The student also used it to edit and check their writing.”

Training helps broaden access to accessibility tools as well. “In the past, if a class had a teacher who was comfortable with technology, students would be regularly exposed to new tools in our labs,” Flexon says. “And if the teacher wasn’t comfortable or didn’t have the right training, students didn’t get exposed to them. Now, regardless of the teacher, all students get the 21st-century learning experience.”

Equity for special education

“We are very mindful of how special education students might become isolated and seen as different from their peers,Chromebooks and G Suite for Education really help us level the playing field—without students even realizing that the playing field has been leveled.” Chad Flexon, Supervisor of Instruction, Harrison Township School District.

Since every student is using a Chromebook, and choosing which accessibility tools they might need for learning at any given moment, students with disabilities are not set apart from their peers. “That helps boost their confidence,” Flexon says. “They no longer have tools that are different from everyone else’s.”

Mary Capone, a 5th grade special education teacher at Pleasant Valley School, sees the level playing field in action every day.

“Having access to Chromebooks has greatly helped my students be successful in this setting,” Capone says of her inclusive classroom. “The speech-to-text feature allows students to focus on the content of their answers and reduces the anxiety of writing a response. Likewise, text-to-speech enables the students to listen to grade level content without the worry of having to read it themselves.”

Exploring features and sharing ideas

Because Chromebooks and G Suite for Education are easy for teachers and students to use, they can discover accessibility tools without the need for extensive training. “Students who might have been reluctant to ask for help can explore features like Read&Write on their own,” Flexon says. “Or they can figure out how to magnify the screen, and use contrasting text colors. They’re quick to pick up on those things—and they can empower themselves to do good work because of this.”

The process of discovering accessibility tools extends to Harrison Township parents. “We learned about the Read&Write app from a parent,” Flexon says. “It helps when we have a community of people to share ideas for accessibility.”

In their regular meetings, teachers are also sharing ideas for adopting Chromebook and G Suite tools that reduce barriers to learning. “We’re inclusive as a staff, so special education teachers are part of our group,” Flexon says. “If we send two or three teachers to a workshop—or teachers who gravitate toward new tools discover something on their own—they can come back to the group and teach others about it.”

The idea-sharing continues, Flexon says, as teachers and students discover new ways to rely on tools that overcome learning obstacles.

“When we first saw the accessibility features in Chromebooks and G Suite, I don’t think we knew what a huge benefit this would be for special education,” he says. “Since that time, we now see the benefits of letting students become personally responsible for learning, and giving them the freedom to create work.”

Looking for guidance and inspiration on improving accessibility in your classroom? Read other Google accessibility case studies here, and visit The A11y Project for more resources.

What they wanted to do

  • Broaden access to classroom technology
  • Improve lesson planning for special education teachers

What they did

  • Adopted a 1:1 Chromebook program for grades 2 to 6
  • Adopted G Suite for Education, including Classroom
  • Added Google Certified Educator Level 1 training for all teachers

What they accomplished

  • Created a more collaborative process for lesson planning
  • Inspired students to discover accessibility tools
  • Helped level the playing field for students with disabilities

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