Learning Ally Blog: Access and Achievement

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Now more than ever, people with learning and visual disabilities are flourishing in the classroom, launching productive careers and becoming assets in their communities. This blog spotlights remarkable individuals who demonstrate that having a visual or print disability is no barrier to educational success.


Breaking the Cycle
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Every one of the 809 students at the Preuss School in San Diego comes from low income-qualifying (“free lunch”) families with no college experience. Now that Preuss is partnering with Learning Ally, students with disabilities will have more independence and access to their rigorous studies to “…become empowered independent learners who will have a seamless transition into their successful futures!” Meet Learning Specialist Krista Bartlett, now completing her first year at the Preuss School in San Diego. While helping to build the school's Learning Resources department from the ground up, Krista has been instrumental in fostering their new partnership with Learning Ally and has high expectations for the program. Learning Ally is a logical solution to many of the challenges faced by the high-achieving Preuss School’s students with disabilities. Krista worked closely with Lea Herman, Learning Ally’s Programs and Services Southwest Program Director, to help meet her expectations. “This school is an extraordinary place," says Lea. "We are excited to be working in partnership with Krista and her students, especially now that we can offer accessibility to our audiobooks with the new Learning Ally Audio app for Apple devices.” The Preuss School has 809 students who attend from 6th through 12th grade, and it is uniquely housed on the campus of University of California San Diego. Its public charter began as a UCSD project with a very generous donation from the Preuss family, and its mission is to help low income students go to college. Admission requirements for the school include: income qualifying for free lunch; that neither parent graduated from a university; and that both parent and student commit to the path of university education. “It’s quite phenomenal,” Krista says. “Students apply, and we have a lottery because there’s always a waiting list. Almost all of our students are bussed in, as they live in neighborhoods far from campus. They often leave home at 6:30 in the morning and take a long bus ride to school. School ends at 4 pm and then students usually stay for tutoring. Often they don’t get home until 6:30 pm and then they’ve got hours of homework each night. We have about a 95 percent success rate for students who get accepted into a four-year university. In fact, last year, four students received the Gates Scholarship so they’ll have their full undergrad and graduate studies funded.” One of our greatest challenges has been finding a way to provide access to these rigorous courses for students who have disabilities." Pointing to the high level of difficulty in Preuss classes, Krista adds:  “One of our greatest challenges has been finding a way to provide access to these rigorous courses for students who have disabilities." When she began her year at Preuss, the school didn’t have a lot of tools in place. Along with the librarian, Krista was scouring the internet for resources. "The first thing that came to mind was, ‘We need audiobooks.’ These students aren’t able to read these textbooks; it’s too much, and they’re falling behind. We needed some way to provide access for students who can’t read quickly enough to complete the homework, the reading level is too high for them, or they are visually impaired and aren’t able to read textbooks with small print. “So we decided to move forward with our partnership with Learning Ally. When we looked through the catalog, we found that many of the textbooks that our students are struggling with are available. That was a major bonus. And we also liked the idea that the books are read in a natural voice, not a computer-generated robotic-type voice. The other selling point was the iPods that are part of Preuss’s package with Learning Ally. We are trying to build in as much assistive technology as we can to keep up with the times and remain innovative in where education is going.” As a Learning Specialist, Krista’s day is full. “Typically I’ll meet one on one with students to help them build their skills, or learn to access the tools they need to help now and in their future. We want to make sure that they are very well informed as to what works for them. We also provide support for students who need help with note taking, or may need small group instruction within the classroom. We have two instructional aides that work within classrooms supporting our students individually. Parents are so grateful because we are truly breaking cycles for these families in a way that will create a long-term effect.” Krista has high hopes that Learning Ally’s accessible audio textbooks will not only give the students more independence with their reading and studying assignments, but will provide benefits for others. “I feel that this is going to be a really great partnership. It’s a solution that will provide a lot of relief to the teachers who have been wondering, ‘What am I going to do if a student can’t read these books, but we need to move forward with the lesson?’ It’s going to be beneficial for everyone involved." Describing the training she completed with Lea Herman, Krista remarks, “We were troubleshooting through the process together, but it really wasn’t much trouble. It was very simple and easy to follow. I was able to easily select a book that I know my students will need to download. I believe this tool will make a difference in a student's ability to pass a class that uses textbooks which may have been inaccessible in the typical format. “One of the greatest hopes I have as we move forward with Learning Ally is that it will help my students become more familiar with the resources and technology that are available. This is extremely important for students who have disabilities as they prepare for college—where they'll have less direct support. It is imperative that they're well versed and comfortable accessing these resources. By integrating Learning Ally into our curriculum early on, we're helping our students to become empowered independent learners who will have a seamless transition into their successful futures." -Diane Kelber


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