More Than Meets the Eye

Inclusive curriculum and creative technology lead to innovative results for one school with a very special student population.

The Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children (WPSBC) is a leading institution in the development of educational approaches for students with different disabilities in combination with visual impairments. The school also provides vital early intervention and outreach services to visually impaired students, with or without additional challenges, throughout western Pennsylvania. The school serves 180 students from 242 school districts within Western PA. Here, we present a few vignettes showing exciting innovations the school has implemented in partnership with other organizations.

Hooked on ‘Ponics

“Today we’re going to talk about sweet peas,” says Debbie Hrivank-Frank, as she spritzes the botanical fragrance into the greenhouse air and sets up adaptive garden equipment. Debbie took her job as the school’s horticulture therapist as a “temporary thing” 25 years ago. Her immersive classes stimulate all of her students’ senses, and everyone has a job to do in the greenhouse, regardless of physical ability. The wheelchair-accessible greenhouse sprouts organic flowers, veggies, and the herbs the school cafeteria serves with its meals. Debbie’s students love worm composting and help care for the 2,500 ladybugs and parasitic wasps used in lieu of pesticides to keep aphids at bay.

Up the ramp and past the brightly-colored handrails, Debbie’s classroom extends to a new aquaponics lab. In partnership with the Door Campaign, the school built a pond to raise trout, who will help fertilize the plants and vegetables growing in the adjacent hydroponic garden. The interdisciplinary project teaches biology, chemistry, and other STEM skills, and financial literacy and life skills when the students sell their finished flora. Debbie’s got them working on recipes for the foods they grow, which she ties into books, like this month’s Cucumber Soup. Debbie points out that it’s often hard for her students to go places in their wheelchairs, so her quiet pond with bullfrogs and native plants offers them a refuge on campus.

Technology Opens Doors…and Apps

James is a student who has visual impairments and mobility challenges. He’s most comfortable lying down, so he attends classes from his bed, where he can use his left hand to move his proximity switch. When he waves his hand near the switch, it can activate different devices around the room, like the doorbell James rings when he wants to answer a question.

James’s teacher Katie says his EEG switch is her favorite technical innovation in the whole school. With electrodes hooked to his arm, James can tense his bicep and control his iPad to navigate his visual schedule. He wants to learn how to send text messages and use iTunes with the switch next.

“Bluetooth is our best friend here at WPSBC,” says Katie. Her multi-age classroom has students from 15-18 years old with varying abilities, and most of them use assistive devices. What all of them want to learn is how to do more with their iPads. Just like students in any high school classroom, Katie’s are focused on how to hack into Siri to text their friends and access their email.

Throughout the school day, Katie and the other faculty, along with instructional aides and therapists, work together to implement the school’s curriculum called FOCUS: Functional Outcomes-based Curriculum for Unique Students. The foundation of this curriculum comes from two sources: The PA Core Standards and the Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC). The ECC consists of the concepts and skills that require specific instruction for students with visual impairments in order to compensate for their vision loss. FOCUS addresses core subjects (math, English language arts, etc.) as well as the specific skill subject areas in the ECC, which include: social interaction, assistive technology, orientation and mobility, compensatory, recreation and leisure, self-determination, sensory efficiency, and health.

Thanks to his tech helpers, James recently rocked his state assessment exams, earning himself a Mountain Dew and a Monster Energy Drink. The innovative and collaborative support from school staff supports James to thrive: he is able to work in the greenhouse store using his assistive devices.

Inclusion Rules

Each year, students from nearby Falk Laboratory School’s sixth and seventh grades come meet WPSBC students of similar ages. Research has shown that opportunities for interactions between typically developing children and children with disabilities result in benefits for both groups of children. WPSBC students learn peer modeling, develop positive social-emotional skills, and build cognitive and language skills while Falk students build social skills and develop positive attitudes towards diversity.

Falk students visit “buddies” at WPSBC four times over the school-year as 6th graders, and as 7th graders they move to spend the day shadowing as classroom helpers. Falk students are asked to document their experience through multimedia storytelling and reflection projects created during a twice monthly meeting, which keeps the experience present for the Falk students throughout the school year.

Expanding from this success, WPSBC has partnered with the LINK Program (Leisure Interaction to Network Kids), pairing their students with local high schools and colleges in order to provide increased social opportunities. While students can gain work experience and build life skills as they complete their education at WPSBC, it is these types inclusive programming that really help to provide the well-rounded education experience all children seek. WPSBC is encouraged by the ripple effects that come when Falk and LINK students return to their home schools and model comfort with diversity and inclusiveness for their peers.

Published June 14, 2018

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