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District of Columbia Public Schools Project Changes Students’ Lives

Picture a room with senior administrators from some of our nation’s largest districts. And then add tears in many eyes. You’re picturing the room at the Council of Great City Schools recent conference in Boston, MA, during the presentation given by Norma Villanueva, Director of Low Incidence Disabilities for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS).

In describing her work with her students with visual impairments and physical disabilities, she told the story of several students whose lives were turned around by assistive technologies and Bookshare. Instead of dropping out, these students have graduated and have a future. Two videos will give you the general idea of her presentation and the stories of some of her students. While the stories are very moving, Norma’s general messages to the other administrators are extremely powerful:

  • Adopt a culture of accountability for ALL students AND their educational achievement
  • Fully embrace technology as the means by which students with print disabilities can access the general curriculum
  • Speak in terms of services and supports rather than of specialized programs
  • Make the assignment of a dedicated aide the last resort rather than the first resort
  • Assume that the general education class is the best and least restrictive educational environment
  • Commit unconditionally to ensuring that students with print disabilities receive textbooks and other core instructional materials at the same time as their non-disabled peers
  • Take equal access to the general curriculum seriously
  • Practice the principles of universal design of instruction
  • Move from a culture of enabling and “care taking” to a culture of empowering and facilitating students’ long-term independence

From the beginnings of the project in the spring, DCPS has continued to make changes. Based on decisions in recent IEP meetings, DCPS cut back on 4 aides.  Although cost reduction was not the goal of the project – independence and an equal education are – the cutbacks more than cover the cost of the assistive technology.

To continue and expand the project, over the summer DCPS downloaded books for their students, put the books on thumb drives, and delivered them to the schools. They provided professional development for all teachers working with the kids; they retrained itinerant teachers, and even trained the parents. Next, they want to include students with dyslexia in the project.

Comments from some of the students participating will tell you how well the project is working.

A young man with visual impairments about to drop out said, “Before I started using the assistive technology, I did not like to read books at all. I couldn’t even really see the words on the page. Once I started using the screen reader, reading got a lot easier for me because I could listen, and I am a good listener and comprehend better by listening.”

Another high school senior who now reads in large print on an iPad said, “I was always behind. I had to wait so long for my books while they enlarged the print.  Now I have several choices of college for next year and have to decide where I want to go. There are no barriers in front of me. They have been knocked down.”

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