Six-year-old Deishaun Shead swiped his finger across the screen of an iPad computer tablet and mouthed words he saw on the display.
The first-grader, who has autism, couldn’t say anything discernible at the start of the school year at Clifty Creek Elementary School, according to Life Skills teacher Amber Wolf.
But the boy has learned a lot since then, thanks in no small part to a trend in the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. that has seen iPads land in students’ hands.
Mike Jamerson, the school system’s director of technology, said administrators have been studying each school’s needs to determine which devices to buy during the next few years. For some, that might be Android mobile devices, Kindle electronic readers or netbooks.
iPads hold a special place across the school district. Teachers say those devices are making a big difference in the education of children, regardless of those children’s abilities.
Life Skills classes at Schmitt and Clifty Creek elementary schools, Northside Middle School and Columbus East and North high schools keep multiple iPads for special-needs students, for example. Clifty Creek and the Columbus Signature Academy — Fodrea and Lincoln campuses also have iPads as part of their project-based learning curricula.
Richards uses iPads only because of the passion of kindergarten teachers Karen Gaddis, Billie Park and Kelly Anderson.
Those educators said they wanted the devices after attending a session called “An App a Day” Nov. 30 at the Indiana State Kindergarten Teachers Convention in Indianapolis. They contacted Richards Principal Darin Sprong, who agreed that the apps would give the kindergarten teachers another tool to help enhance the classroom experience.
Having used the iPads for their classes since January, the teachers said they and the students love the devices and the free, downloadable computer applications, commonly called apps.
“My kids are more excited to learn now,” Gaddis said. “They’re engaged and enjoying what they’re doing. You can see it.”
The three teachers got one iPad a piece for their classrooms, plus a fourth that they share, Park said.
They’ve downloaded more than 20 apps, most of them free, that cover the spectrum of math and word games, Park said. She said students use them at different times, but primarily during literacy stations and math stations when they circulate in groups around the room to practice different skills.
During a school board meeting Feb. 25, the teachers had students demonstrate for the audience a math app called “Monster Squeeze” and a literacy app called “Build a Word Express.”
“Our students were born into this electronic world,” Anderson said. “It’s what they need. It’s what everything is going to.”
Numbers aren’t available yet to show iPads’ effect on education. That’s because the classes have only had the devices a short time. But all three teachers said they can feel the children’s excitement and know that it ultimately will transfer to better test scores.
Clifty Creek likewise has embraced iPad technology, although it’s impact is especially felt in Clifty Creek’s Life Skills class. Students there have various learning disabilities, and all have trouble communicating with other people.
Wolf said the iPad apps give her students a way to learn by swiping their fingers across the screen, instead of verbalizing everything and always having to interact with someone or use motor skills that not all of them have developed.
An app called “Little Writer,” for example, lets students trace letters with their fingers and then hear how the letters sound.
Wolf said each of her eight students has been issued an iPad. She said the devices have made a tremendous difference in all of her students’ education, regardless of their needs.
For Deishaun, one of the students in that class, Donnielle Shead said her son couldn’t verbalize anything at the beginning of the school year. But his work with computer apps has him saying words for the first time and even reading what he sees on the screen.
That’s made it easier for him to communicate with his family members so they know what he wants, whether it’s his Leap Pad learning device or something from the fridge.
“It just seems like he’s come out of his shell,” Shead said.
Nancy Conner, the district’s autism coordinator, said research is still coming together at state and national levels about the educational benefits of iPads on students with autism.
But she said it clearly makes a difference.
People with autism tend to do well with technology because they are creative by nature, Conner said. She said they thrive on the visual images and do much better in general than if they had to communicate with someone face to face.
Jamerson said the influence of technology will grow for all students.
“Five years from now, we’ll see a lot more of everything,” he said. “Everything I’ve heard says technology is working for kids.”