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San Diego Sets the Bar High for Serving Special Education Students

District has 700 Bookshare sponsors, over 1,800 student members, and has downloaded 10K+ books

San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD), the second largest in California, has a winning formula when it comes to serving students in special education. Their approach has evolved over the years as technology and digital educational resources have also evolved. Corey Straily, an Assistive Technology (AT) Specialist, recently shared the secrets to SDUSD’s success.

The SDUSD Landscape

First, some quick facts: SDUSD has 131,252 students in 226 educational facilities, 26% are English learners, 59% are eligible for free or reduced meals, and 11%, or 14,787 students, are in special education. The majority have learning disabilities with a smaller percentage of students with physical disabilities and visual impairments.

Schools are grouped into six clusters with AT specialists assigned to each cluster. The AT department provides on-site training for special education resource teachers, speech-language pathologists, and para-educators. “For any student who has difficulty with reading and writing, the first thing we do is set them up with Read&Write for Google Chrome™ and Bookshare,” says Corey. “This is our go-to starter kit.”

Widespread Bookshare Implementation is Result of Perfect Storm

According to Corey, district-wide adoption really gained traction when four phenomena converged starting in 2008:

  1. Bookshare memberships became free for qualified U.S. students through an award from the Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). This award was just renewed for another five years.
  2. SDUSD implemented a district-wide tech plan that included Google Chromebooks.
  3. Bookshare launched a free, easy-to-use reading tool called Bookshare Web Reader, as well as features like Reading Lists that made it easier to find, save, and assign books to students.
  4. Students’ access to electronic devices (smartphones, tablets, laptops) increased.

“Thanks to improvements by the Bookshare software engineering team, students are able to find and read books more easily. The more intuitive the technology becomes, the easier it is to use, and the greater the adoption rate,” says Corey.

Teacher Training: Keep it Simple!

Corey and the AT staff conduct numerous training sessions. He stresses the importance of a “less is more” approach that trains teachers how to complete four basic steps to get started in Bookshare:

  1. Add teachers to the SDUSD organizational account as sponsors.Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
  2. Add student members and set up logins.
  3. Assign four reading lists to students based on grade level:
    • Textbooks
    • Literature required reading
    • Common core books
    • Leisure reading
  4. Select a book on a Reading List and open it in Bookshare Web Reader on a Chromebook.

Once the teachers have mastered the basics, they can request additional training on other devices like iPads or smartphones as well as reading apps including Go Read (Android), Dolphin Easy Reader, and Voice Dream Reader.

Three Helpful Tips

  • Stress the benefits of AT and Bookshare – “Features like text-to-speech narration with word highlighting help students with learning disabilities decode words and focus on comprehension. The technology is just an enabler,” says Corey.
  • Start them early – get elementary students fully engaged with technology and fun books so those habits carry over to later grades. “Interestingly, high school students tend to be reluctant to try new technology, so it’s critical to get them up and running by the time they enter middle school,” suggests Corey.
  • Make reading fun – encourage teachers to assign age-appropriate Reading Lists of popular books to their students. Students with learning disabilities want to read the same books that their friends are reading, like Captain Underpants and Goosebumps.

On the Digital Bookshelf

Bookshare has set up Special Collections so students can find favorite books quickly and easily:Ungifted by Gordon Korman

Fiction for Reluctant Readers – Sixty high interest, low vocabulary books that will entice even the most book averse. Ideal for elementary and middle grade readers.

Popular Series – all-time favorites including Harry Potter, Goosebumps, Magic Treehouse, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Benetech would like to thank Corey and the AT department at SDUSD for supporting educators, suggesting new features for Bookshare, and bringing books to so many students to enable a positive learning environment.

Learn More

To learn more about special collections and other district best practices, check out these blogs:


  1. Kimberly

    Great read! We’ve been working to just get a single AT person and what a mountain it is to move! This is so inspiring to keep going!

  2. Jeff

    Way to go, Corey, and AT staff in SDUSD!

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