Joshua Dickson, right, leads the School Committee through an exercise of jumbled auditory directions to show what some of his students struggle with.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — School Committee members struggled on Monday night to follow a set of simple recorded directions to match shapes and colors on a mat.
The problem was the "simple" directions — spoken once and not repeated — came amidst the babble of a typical classroom setting that made hearing directions difficult. No one was able to complete it.
The demonstration by Joshua Dickson, a teacher in the autism program at Brayton Elementary School, was designed to give the board members a taste of what some of his students deal with on a daily basis.
"It took me 15 tries to do it," said Dickson of the exercise (which was supposed to reveal an image if successfully completed). "I just sort of wanted to give a little bit of a foundation to some of the struggles our students face in the typical classroom."
Dickson designed a program, Project Access, a technologically based alternative for children who need more help to achieve the "same high expectations for students across the district." Dickson said raising their ability to achieve could be as simple as a pencil grip for those with motor skills issues to more dynamic interactions to encourage learning.
Project Access (Assistive Technology in Coaching and Creating Expectations of Successful Students) uses a combination of software and touch-screen computers. It is being funded by a Gateway Fund grant based on Dickson's presentation to its advisory committee last spring.
The grant provided funding for upgraded educational software (BoardMaker Studio), two Planar touchscreens and several Apple iPads. The equipment is being used in the Castles programs for preschool, kindergarten-5 and high school students — ranging from those with communication delays, to those on the autism spectrum to those with behavioral issues.
Dickson demonstrated some of what younger students have been doing with the programs, such as interactive illustrated books in which the characters "talk" what the text is describing to enhance literacy, a reading application for matching words with objects that also lets children build sentences and another that lets the teacher upload tests or forms so that children who have difficulty writing can speak the answers.
"It still allows them to demonstrate their knowledge and mastery of the content but at their own level," he said.
Dickson is looking at another grant and, in comparing data from last year and this, he said the special education population seems to be rising, making access to academic learning and life skills even more important.
"It's something that I feel very strongly about," he told the board, "taking into consideration making investments going into the future so we have the resources and the tools that we need to make the most successful students that we possibly can."
In other business, Superintendent James Montepare said the school district is making some progress on its action plan to increase Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System scores and graduation rates. He described it as a "daunting task."
"This district action plan was very, very ambitious," he said, because of its complexity in integrating plans for the individual schools and the state's new assessments. "We wanted to test the waters and see how far we went with this."
The first objective is to improve MCAS scoring of proficient or higher to 60 percent the English Language Arts and 45 percent in math. Much of the steps and benchmarks toward that goal are on track, including increasing classroom instruction times and testing improvements. Timelines are being revised and data collection is still being done on other objectives, including scoring on science and social studies. Steps to improve graduation rates are mostly complete and showing progress.
Some objectives are on target, some off, said Montepare. "So it's a work in progress. You'll see more as the school improvements come your way."
The board also approved tuition rates for the 2013-14 school year:
High and elementary schools $10,303
Special education $18,571
E3, autism, transition $24,763
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