Key U.S. Department of Education officials, administrators, teachers, parents, and students all participating in an event showcasing one of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs’ (OSEP) investments, and all seated together at a table, inspired Betsy Beaumon, Vice President and General Manager of the Literacy Program at Benetech to say, “It takes a village and this is what it looks like.”
On September 11, 2012, the “village” at Toyon Elementary School in San Jose, CA, welcomed Melody Musgrove, the Director of the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), and Sue Swenson, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS). Melody and Sue visited the school as part of the Department’s fall “Education Drives America” campaign. As Melody said, “We like to get out to schools and see how programs like Bookshare are working. It’s important to stay connected and see what we can do to drive better outcomes.” Sandra Soto, Chief of Staff, and Minh-Chau Nguyen, Congressional Assistant, who represent Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA, District 16), also participated in the event.
Five students from Berryessa Union School District reading digital textbooks and pleasure books from Bookshare with laptops, iPads, and iPod Touches set the tone for the event. The students’ comments inspired all. Jonas, a 4th grader, said, “I understand my textbooks better. I don’t have to sound out the difficult words.” His mom, Amy Wagner added, “He’s more interested in books and comprehends better. He wants to read.”
Vincent, a middle school student, was reading for pleasure on a computer. Because of Bookshare, he likes to read now. Previously, he wouldn’t pick up a book, but his mom, Deborah Nava, reported, “Vincent sits in the back of the car reading. I try to talk to him but he’s so focused, he doesn’t hear me. He reads every night. For the first time, he’s reading independently.”
In doing her homework, Reyna demonstrated an interesting combination—simultaneously using digital and print books. She had her print textbook open, but was listening to the text on an iPad with a digital Bookshare version of the book. She followed along in both.
Tammy Irvine, the Special Education teacher working with these students, said, “Tools like Bookshare enable me to handle six different students, at different grade levels, with six different learning needs. We’re seeing results not just in their motivation and enjoyment of reading, but in their standardized test scores. While many factors contribute to improvement in scores, our special education students’ average English-Language Arts score increase was 51%, from 10% proficiency to 61%, over six years. Over one year, our average increase in English-Language Arts was 12%.”
“These gains are phenomenal,” said Melody. “Most schools would be happy with an increase of
1%. Closing the achievement gap is extremely important. It isn’t just the tools; it’s a combination of tools, leadership, effective teachers who know how to incorporate the tools, and supportive parents. We thank you all for your initiative and support.”
Seeing the success of these students with learning differences was a very moving and motivating experience that stimulated discussion among all participants about technology, special education and future programs. Don Vu, the principal of Toyon, said that he’s focused on technology in the last few years. “I can see how it helps kids get engaged. Technology gives instantaneous corrective feedback, which is particularly helpful when a teacher has 24 students and can’t be next to each one all the time.”
Even though this district is in the thick technology environment of Silicon Valley, technology wasn’t always a priority for the district. Will Ector, Superintendent of Berryessa Union School District, also thoroughly supports technology. “I’m making technology a priority. Keeping our technology current is a challenge, but we’re working on it, and working on expanding access to our platforms.”
Looking forward, Sue asked the assembled team, “What do you wish we knew at the federal level? The purpose of the bus tour is to gather information to take back to the Secretary and President. If we could remove barriers, what would those be?”
With 40% of the students at Toyon coming from families where English is a second language, Vu asked for more exposure to academics at an early age. “We had to close our early childhood development center. Some of our kindergarteners start school not knowing their letter sounds. We have students who aren’t identified as having learning issues at a young age because their parents aren’t aware there’s a problem.”
Superintendent Ector agreed. “We need more services. Our funds have dried up. We need to get more parents involved at an early age.”
Jim Fruchterman, CEO of Benetech, the parent nonprofit for Bookshare, said, “Most of our team is from Silicon Valley technology companies. We get technology and want to make a difference. We want to make tools for whatever is in a parent’s pocket. With our award from OSEP, we are building reading tools so that students can read with a browser, starting on the same page whether they are at school, home or the library. We are building tools for publishers and content developers to make content accessible from the beginning.”
From the federal level, Melody said that “We’re changing our priorities to focus more on student outcomes. Providing better tools for improved student outcomes is a really important part of what we do.”
The village assembled at Toyon could look around the room and see that the tools and teamwork did work, turning nonreaders into readers and changing student outcomes.