Menomonee Falls, Germantown school districts see iPads expand expression in students

Shannyn Best traces the number 2 on an iPad at one of the work group tables in Stacy Schuck's 4K classroom at Ben Franklin School on April 4.

Shannyn Best traces the number 2 on an iPad at one of the work group tables in Stacy Schuck's 4K classroom at Ben Franklin School on April 4.

April 7, 2014

Necessary tool or costly luxury? There is no question in the Menomonee Falls and Germantown school districts. Parents, teachers and students alike seem to agree the use of iPads and other devices in schools earns an above satisfactory grade.

"It's been an absolute dream come true for these kids," said Tracy Hennes, a speech and language pathologist for kindergarten through fifth grade in the Menomonee Falls School District.

Specifically, the district's use of these devices with early childhood and special education students is paving the way for a whole new kind of learning.

"These tools enable us to redirect all the time we used to spend teaching a student to write or type toward teaching them how to express their thoughts so they are no longer inhibited by their disability," Hennes said.

The tablets have in essence replaced their technological predecessors known as augmentative communication devices. Those devices cost more than $5,000 and were specifically tailored to special education students, explained Menomonee Falls Director of Technology Jeff Nenning, whereas the $500 iPads are much more versatile and user-friendly.

It's not without its costs. Since the Menomonee Falls School District began accumulating iPads for the 2012-13 school year, Nenning estimates the total cost at about $85,250. That includes the 185 units currently being used in a combined 37 kindergarten and first-grade classrooms. On average, most of the apps being used are 99 cents, including student favorites like the Dora Rhyming Game app.

But most who work with the devices say the benefits far outweigh the associated expenses.

"It is one thing to talk about allowing students to access curriculum in a new way," said Menomonee Falls School District Director of Pupil Services Kathy Zarling. "It's something else to actually see it in action. These things we used to assume students didn't know because they couldn't tell us ... now we know differently because we've found a new way to communicate."

Not all devices in schools are provided by the district, as teachers in many classrooms encourage students to bring their own with them, depending on the grade level and curriculum. When they do, it provides a way for regular education students to interact with special education students in surprising ways.

"The other day I was in a third-grade classroom, and the teacher asked the students to get out their devices," said Stacey Klemm, an occupational therapist for the Menomonee Falls School District. "It was so neat to see them get out their Kindles, iPods and iPad minis and be able to share information between special ed and regular ed kids."

It doesn't stop there. A trend among high school teachers is to purchase curriculum that includes digital copy available to students, Klemm said. That way they can have five or six books on one device, usually owned by the student, instead of lugging them all over the school.

Other than the costs involved, 4K teacher Stacy Schuck points to overstimulation as a challenge she occasionally encounters.

"The kids sometimes want to use them all the time, so as teachers we really want to make sure we work to maintain a balance with interaction and technology throughout the day," she said. "It's pretty amazing, though, how frequently they end up showing us adults things we didn't know on these devices."

The education never stops for Germantown speech pathologist and program support teacher Kathy Kaebisch, who has been with the district for more than 30 years.

"Seeing the ways technology is changing lives is such an inspiration," she said, as she fondly recalled the stories of several students with whom she has worked over the past few years. "Learning like this is totally customized to the child," she said, "and for some of these children, it becomes their voice."

That has certainly been the case for 14-year-old Kailey Ambrose, with whom Kaebisch has worked since she was in kindergarten. Ambrose's mom Bethann could not say enough for the effect technology — as well as Kaebisch herself — has had on the development of her daughter.

"Social skills, mannerisms and how to interact effectively with others ... these are things our kids need to learn," Bethann said. "(Using technology) really is a positive way to get everyone speaking the same language regardless of differences in learning styles."

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