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Special Needs Students Benefit from Synched Classrooms

By guest blogger Gina Cairney

In an effort to ensure all its students have the same opportunities for quality classroom instruction, Cumberland County (N.C.) schools are using technology to "bridge" together its classrooms to maximize good teaching, the Fayetteville Observer reports.

With an interactive whiteboard, laptop, webcam, and conferencing software, teachers are able to interact with students anywhere in the district, and, according to the Observer, the school system can better meet federal requirement for having a certified teacher in each classroom.

As more schools integrate technology into their classrooms, there have been some concerns about the technologies' effectiveness, teachers' ability to use them, and even that the tools themselves may be replacing teachers.

But Ruben Reyes, executive director of exceptional child services for the 53,100-student district, tells the Observer that the technology is not meant to replace teachers, but it allows a single teacher to teach more students in the event a vacancy is hard to fill.

It's a "tool to enable teachers to share their expertise," Reyes told the Observer. "Without the teachers, this tool doesn't do anything."

The program, which cost the school district $6,000, was initiated last year by Terrence McAllister, principal of South View Middle School, as a pilot program with a focus in three key areas.

According to McAllister, the conferencing software—called Bridgit, which is designed for use on whiteboards by Canada-based SMART Technologies—ensures that special education teachers and highly qualified teachers are in the classroom for special needs students.

"[Special education] teachers are now required to be highly qualified in core subject areas in order to teach the course. Since the inception of this requirement it has been difficult to find [highly qualified] teachers to fill vacant positions," McAllister said in an email.

The software also supports and assists teachers who face challenges with particular objectives.

For example, if a math teacher is having challenges with linear equations, he can have another math teacher who has mastered that objective help out by syncing the classroom whiteboards together. This not only ensures students are getting the best instruction on the subject matter, but it also provides the struggling teacher strategies and support for the material.

Finally, the software also provides remediation for students. Schools have set aside specific days and times for remedial lessons, which McAllister said allows teachers more time to help students who may be struggling.

"This allows concepts to be taught to approximately 150-200 students at one time," he said.

While the program is focused on benefiting all students, educators report it is showing the greatest benefits for special needs students.

Sometimes it's difficult to find special education teachers who are considered "highly qualified", which leaves a school with limited options such as placing special needs students in regular classrooms where they may be ignored, or assigning highly qualified teachers into a special needs classroom.

With Bridgit, Gray's Creek High School Principal Vernon Aldridge said in an email, that their special needs students get the benefit of being in a small classroom setting with a certified special needs teacher, while receiving quality instruction by a qualified teacher of a particular subject.

"The smaller setting that Bridgit provides has made our [special needs] students more actively engaged in the learning," Aldridge said.

Rachel Hendricks, a math teacher at Gray's Creek that uses the Bridgit software said in an email that the program gives special needs students a "more focused learning setting which minimizes opportunities to be distracted."

"This provides a lot more opportunity for one-on-one when necessary," she said.

Aldridge also stressed that Bridgit is not a substitute for having a qualified teacher in the classroom.

"There is no piece of technology that can replace having a caring and competent teacher in the classroom," he said.

"We have found that our students are technology savvy and the more technology included in the instruction the more successful they are," and will be in the 21st century workplace.

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