Q&A: Build inclusive schools through ability awareness


With that word, one of Principal Sophie Lee’s 408 students at Sunset Elementary School kicked off daily morning announcements. It was just like any other time a student spoke at announcements, except that this morning, Lee pressed her microphone to the student’s augmentative communication device. The student, who is nonverbal, pressed an icon to say, “Hello.”

Modeling inclusive practices and educating students and teachers about how some students communicate through assistive technology is one of the many ways that Lee and her staff promote inclusion at Sunset Elementary in San Francisco.

“We want the students to learn that we’re a very inclusive community,” Lee said.

This year, Lee was recognized by the U.S. Education Department as one of eight recipients of the Terrel H. Bell Outstanding Leadership award. Since Lee joined Sunset Elementary 15 years ago, the school has experienced a turnaround culturally and academically. The elementary school gained more than 200 points in California’s Academic Performance Index rankings and gained a waiting list of prospective kindergartners that reaches into the thousands.

Inclusivity is a core practice throughout the school, which includes a program for students with autism. Below, Lee discusses how technology and other practices have contributed to the school culture. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What activities do you use to promote inclusion and how do you teach students about assistive technology?

A: Every year, our district recognizes inclusivity week in December. I provide a substitute for our two special day class teachers to be out of the classroom to visit our general education classrooms. They teach the students ability awareness and talk about how students may have different ways of communicating or learning. They do awareness activities. During recesses, they’ve also brought assistive technology to help kids learn about how other students learn.

One of our parents also built us a wooden tree and we had all our students color and decorate purple puzzle pieces, the symbol for autism. We call this our acceptance tree. Every student has their puzzle piece on the tree. We have a lot of those kinds of projects that go on, so that everyone is working together to ensure we promote inclusion.

Q: How are students and special education teachers using technology to transform learning and instruction in your school?

A: A couple years ago, we didn’t have a lot of technology equipment. I started purchasing smartboards with the LCD projector so that teachers could project their work. Every class got these, including our two special day classes. I want all students to have equal access to the curriculum, technology, and communication. Our English learners are another focal group and so are our higher learners. You want equal access for everyone.

With the smartboards, students and teachers can project their work on the walls so that everyone can follow along on a big screen. Our teachers have also used these for IEP meetings to project the document on the wall so everyone can see it.

Our special day classes also have iPads that were donated by the city mayor. Many of our students were already familiar with how to use an iPad from home. In the classroom, a teacher can project one student’s iPad onto the smartboard so that other students can see what the student is doing for collaborative work. The students use their iPads or Chromebooks to access Unique Learning Systems, an online curriculum designed for students with special needs. A lot of our service providers, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech teachers also use these devices when they’re working with our students. We’re finding if you provide devices and students have access to their language and communication development, we see a lot more progress.

Jennifer Herseim covers Section 504 and education technology as it relates to special education for LRP Publications.

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