Tech Success for Special Education
The National School Board Association included Jennifer Ziolko on its 2006 list of the 20 most outstanding emerging leaders in education, based on her work implementing technology and supporting its use in special education classes throughout the West Linn/Wilsonville (Ore.) School District.
Previously a special ed teacher in the district's Rosemont Ridge Middle School, with a sign outside her old special ed classroom reading, "Notice my ability," Ziolko has strived to provide all possible resources to her students. Today, as assistive technology director, she matches the educational needs of her students-some with learning disabilities, some with autism, some with no ability to communicate normally-with cutting-edge technological opportunities. "One difficulty is the availability of technology for special needs students," she says. "Some people look at the low number of special ed classrooms compared to regular classes and decide to bring technology to the masses." But Ziolko's district "has made great gains in that perspective."
Ziolko's special-needs work dates to her fourth-grade year at Holcomb Elementary in Oregon City, Ore., when she volunteered in special ed classrooms. From that age, she says, teaching special needs students would be her path.
"In elementary school, when I was in first or second grade, there was a kindergarten girl who I helped get back to her class. I saw her a few years ago at a social event, and she said, 'I remember when you helped me.' ... It's the feeling you get from helping others."
Today she supports all special ed classrooms in her district with technology by researching and installing new programs and tools, and training teachers and students to use them.
"I don't know of another district that has its own full-time [assistive technology] person" specifi cally for kids with learning disabilities, says Ziolko. Classroom teachers once individually researched such programs; Ziolko now does that and works directly with the district's Information Technology department to ensure the best programs get to her kids, and fast. "No one in the IT department has an educational background, so I can go to a conference and go back and show the department why a particular program would be good for students."
Ziolko brought to the district the four-program suite SOLO by Don Johnston Inc., which reads aloud to students, contains a word prediction component to help students fi nish thoughts and sentences, and has a component to assist with draft building for essay writing. She also implemented SuccessMaker Enterprise, a math instruction program.
Among Ziolko's favorite tools are augmentative communication devices used for students with speaking disabilities. West Linn/Wilsonville has six to 10 such students, and Ziolko helps kids program these devices with age-appropriate sayings that help them communicate like kids who can do so normally. "They help give voice to people who wouldn't have had one."
Ziolko's superintendent is implementing a "virtual resource room" where programs for special ed teachers and students are available on an always accessible network. Ziolko is researching programs to help autistic students avoid classroom situations with excessive stimuli with one-onone lesson attention on the computer.
On moving from a classroom to a districtwide position, Ziolko says, "I still like that although I don't have a classroom, I'm impacting students, and the impact is more than 10 or 13 kids. I'm impacting across a district."
Jennifer Chase Esposito is a contributing writer.