A Special Mission in Denver

How data and technology can make a difference for students with autism.

GUEST COLUMN | by Gene Bamesberger, Jo Gunderson, and Jennifer Harris

CREDIT Rethink Autism imageIt is estimated that 1 in 68 children in the United States have an autism spectrum disorder. As these diagnoses continue to rise, schools have a growing responsibility to care for and serve these students. Thankfully, technology is making it easier for educators who serve students with autism to focus less on paperwork and more on the individual needs of the student. Educators who teach students with disabilities are tasked with tracking Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for each student. The plans

In education there are no silver bullets; any move to integrate more data and technology must be done thoughtfully. 

are long and detailed, outlining specific goals and objectives and describing what instruction and assistance is needed to help a student meet those goals. Often times teachers and their paraprofessional staff are teaching students of varying levels of competency with vastly different needs. And, it is not uncommon for teachers to be faced with new challenges for which they lack specific training.

Several years ago at Denver Public Schools, we implemented an online platform that provides on-demand professional development for our teachers and paraprofessionals. As a result, teachers have access to the content they need, when they need it. Rather than attend daylong professional development seminars that don’t always cover the right topics, teachers and paraprofessionals can watch two-minute videos on the issue they need help with. By watching the same tutorials for addressing very specific needs, teaching is consistent regardless of who is working with the student.

The online platform called Rethink is also tied to an integrated data system that gives our teachers easy-to-use tools to track and monitor student progress. Our teachers are saving time by having one comprehensive place to enter updates, prepare information for parents, and most importantly, ensure their students are succeeding. Having quality, accessible data means that teachers can intervene sooner when they notice a student isn’t progressing without losing valuable days and weeks.

In education there are no silver bullets; any move to integrate more data and technology must be done thoughtfully. To that end, we’ve put into place a coaching program that allows teachers to get direct support from district staff. Each coaching team has 12 people and each coach is responsible for several programs. In addition to individual training, our coaches host monthly check-ins with their team to talk through challenges and brainstorm solutions as a group

Between the tech-driven resources and ongoing coaching support, this new program has allowed us to make significant progress with students. Last summer, a student joined us at Morey Middle School. He had previously moved from school to school and even had several aggressive outbursts that required his family to send him to a group home. With our new data system in place, we were able to quickly pull together data from the other schools he attended, establish a detailed plan of action, and meet with his family to discuss his IEP. All of the work has paid off. He has not had a single outburst since January and we are currently talking to his family about getting him back home.

Incorporating technology and data into the fabric of a special education program takes work. These changes didn’t happen overnight and we are still making improvements to our program. If you are looking to bring a new tech-supported program into your district or school, here are few things to remember:

Go slow and be patient. As with any new program, you must gather buy-in. Taking our time and thinking carefully about how to roll out the various pieces gave us the chance to integrate teachers and paraprofessionals into the process. As a result, they love the program and are reaping the benefits.

Provide needed training. To help our staff most effectively use the new tools we provided, our coaching team was key. Our goal was to make it as easy as possible for teachers. We first trained our trainers which made them effective ambassadors for the new program. By making this investment up front, we’ve watched our coaches grow in their confidence and ability to coach teachers. We now have a great partnership between coaches and teachers – they share what is working and what they need and our coaches focus on making things as easy as possible for our teachers.

Streamline. If not done correctly, new data systems can lead to duplication. Use one platform, instead of two. In our case, we used the new system as the comprehensive repository of student information. At the district office level, we can extract information we need without requiring teachers to resubmit information they’ve already entered.

Despite the upfront work involved, the end result is worth it: more efficient and effective teachers, a more collaborative approach between teachers, parents, and school leaders, and most important, happier, more successful students.

Gene Bamesberger, Jo Gunderson, and Jennifer Harris work for Denver Public Schools as Associate Director of Special Education, Associate Support Partner, and Multi-Intensive Autism Teacher, respectively. They have each been instrumental in implementing the software and support program, Rethink, to improve special education and services for children with autism throughout the district.

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