Special Needs Center Serves as One-Stop Technology Shop

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Palm Springs Unified School District in California took its use of technology to a new level last month by opening an Assistive Technology Diagnostic Center that will serve as a local resource for students with cognitive, academic, and physical challenges. The new facility provides free assessments for local students who in the past were forced to travel to Orange County or Riverside (both of which are two to three hours away) to receive such services.

Kathy Little, director at PSUSD, said the Assistive Technology Diagnostic Center came about after the district realized that it needed to provide a stronger base of assistive technologies for its students. "There was nothing close by that we could refer students and families to for assessments," said Little. "We looked into using existing staff to handle the project and found out that we had several individuals on staff with experience in assistive technology."

The next step was to find the funding necessary to set up the center. For that, Little says the district approached the Irene W. & Guy L. Anderson Children's Foundation of Palm Springs.The organization makes grant money available to any non-profit organization in the Coachella Valley whose purpose is to meet the needs of the area's young people.

According to the foundation, grant applications are reviewed and chosen by a seven-member, non-partisan committee representing the geographic areas and ethnic diversities of the Coachella Valley. Key criteria for the grants of $50,000 or less include project originality and diversity. In 2008, the foundation fielded 154 grant requests and selected 40 of them for awards totaling $938,000.

"We wrote to the foundation--which is a great supporter of education in our area--applied for the grant, and received the award," said Little. The center was funded by an approximately $40,000 grant from the Anderson Children's Foundation and was spearheaded by Palm Springs Unified (which comprises 15 elementary schools, four middle schools, three comprehensive high schools, and one continuation high school) with the cooperation of Desert Sands USD and Coachella Valley USD. PSUSD's programs include special education, instruction for English learners, tech prep, athletics, Advanced Placement, SBCP, Title I, school-to work transition, and a pilot 24/7 laptop program.

Little said the center was built on the site of Riverside County's office of education. "They provide the facility, and we provide the assessments," said Little. With the help of the grant, the district opened the center's doors in January and has purchased the computer and augmentative communication equipment needed to start doing those assessments. Resources available include simple pencil grips, raised-line paper, text scanners, voice recognition software, and word prediction software.

The assessment process begins with a referral, which is then reviewed and followed up with a consultation with the school and parent. Students are assessed by appointment, and the recommended equipment is ordered by their district. At the center, students can test the available equipment, find what works best for their needs, and be trained how to use it. The diagnostic center staff, which includes occupational and speech therapists, also does video and/or phone conferences with students, parents and teachers.

Depending on the students' needs, the Assistive Technology Diagnostic Center provides equipment like adaptive keyboards and dynamic voice systems, both of which allow them to more effectively participate in the classroom environment. "We've done about six assessments so far for Desert Sands and have also completed a few for students in the surrounding communities," said Little.

Little said the center also works in the sensitive area of switch placement assessment, which determines exactly where the student has the greatest control over the switch activation. "We've already done a couple of assessments, with the child using a switch to access a computer," said Little, "and learned that it's not always the student's hand that yields the best results."

Just a short time out of the gate, Little said the center already has a pipeline full of students in need of its services and is booked through the end of May. "We're now opening it up to a larger number of referrals, of which I have three on my desk right now," she explained, adding that the district's long-term goal is to grow the center to a point where it handles more than just basic assessments.

"We're looking to get another grant and purchase even more equipment, including keyboards and augmentative communication devices," said Little, "both of which are pretty expensive."

Elka Kelly-Parker, director of student support services and special education at the Desert Sands Unified School District, said at least some of the center's success can be attributed to the joint efforts of the three districts that got involved with it. "It's unique for three districts to pool their efforts, write a grant, and open a facility that serves the whole group," said Kelly-Parker. "That--combined with the private sector foundation that supported the initiative--really helped create a successful project."

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