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Devereux Glenholme School Goes High-Tech to Help Students Connect


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Devereux Glenholme School Goes High-Tech
Washington, CT - With a quick glance, a passerby might think busy corporate executives have overtaken the Devereux Glenholme School campus. The school provides all of its students with Dell X50 personal digital assistants or PDAs. Like their corporate counterparts, students use the handheld computers to keep track of their schedules, take notes or transfer files and documents.

The devices also serve another, perhaps more important, purpose at Glenholme. They are part of the school’s comprehensive effort to use the latest technologies to help students connect with each other.

The PDAs allow students to share a favorite song or play a game outside of class. A student-run Web site gives Glenholme students the opportunity to collaborate with others and reach out to their parents. The school’s in-house TV and radio studios provide an outlet where some students can serve as role models for their peers.

“Our goal is to help students become independent adults, and social skills are a critical component,” says Glenholme executive director Gary Fitzherbert. “We’re always asking ourselves: How do we take advantage of technology to reach students in ways that were never before possible?”

Building bonds among students is especially important at Glenholme, a family choice boarding school on 100 picturesque acres in Washington, Connecticut, because many of its students have difficulty interacting with other people.

Asperger’s and other learning challenges

Glenholme serves students with academic and social difficulties, often the result of conditions such as bipolar disorder, depression, Tourette’s disorder, attention deficit hyper-activity disorder (ADHD) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Nearly one-third of its students are affected by Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disorder in which people have extreme difficulty with social interactions.

Asperger’s is a disorder within the milder end of autism spectrum disorders. People with Asperger’s exhibit traits common to autism, such as difficulty developing relationships with peers, repetitive behaviors and routines. However, unlike people with more severe autism, people with Asperger’s develop language skills at a normal age and have normal and even above-normal intelligence.

Students with Asperger’s may have trouble making eye contact or expressing themselves with nonverbal gestures. They may lack natural interest in sharing enjoyment with others, such as pointing out something they find curious. They may unknowingly make repetitive movements such as hand flapping or finger twisting.

“Students come to us with a variety of diagnoses, but once they’re here, we don’t use those categories,” Fitzherbert says. “We concentrate on a student’s strengths, and we develop a highly individualized program to target those areas where a student may need additional help.”

Technology plays a role in each program, helping reinforce the lessons of teachers and therapists. Right now, students use the PDAs mostly to keep track of classroom schedules, homework assignments and other goals. As students get more accustomed to the devices, Glenholme’s educators hope to expand their uses.

For example, a student with Asperger’s could receive a reminder at the beginning of a lunch period to try to engage in conversations with other students. The message would be as friendly and discreet as a text message a student might receive from a friend.

“It’s a way of reaching students without them necessarily realizing that they’re being taught,” says center director Maryann Campbell. “Students might not always think aboutpracticing these social skills, and a teacher cannot always be there to prompt them.”

You’re on the air

Glenholme’s philosophy is that students with limited social skills need role models. The school has a significant Asperger’s population, but it also serves many students who do not have Asperger’s. The school, which has students in 5th grade through high school post-graduates, produces a Friday morning TV show, called “The Glenholme News,” about happenings around campus. Some students take on-air responsibilities and others run the cameras and videoediting equipment.

“The students just love the technology; they eat it up,” Fitzherbert says. “Meanwhile, they are watching their peers and learning appropriate ways to interact with others.”

Students have similar experiences managing their own Web site, www.glenweb.org. They have to go around campus and meet with teachers and classmates to gather digital photos and other content for the Web site. The site’s flashy graphics and scrolling text give students an unusual opportunity to express themselves.

Every bedroom at Glenholme has a personal computer with Internet access and appropriate access controls. Every classroom has a large-screen computer monitor and some rooms are equipped with video-conferencing equipment. Video conferencing has allowed students to visit fascinating and educational sites, from the Johnson Space Center in Houston to the Cleveland Zoo.

What did you learn today?

Glenholme’s commitment to technology extends to parents. The school maintains a special Web site just for parents. Most students reside on campus, and the site gives parents the chance to easily learn more than what a child might report over the phone.

“We all remember giving a typical one-word answer when our parents would ask, `So, what did you learn today?’ ” Fitzherbert says. “The site was designed to inform, entertain and update parents on their child’s everyday lifestyle.”

On the password-protected site, parents can view regularly updated photos, news articles and video clips of athletics, arts or other activities. They can read a calendar of upcoming events, as well as profiles about their child’s favorite faculty members. A secure area of the site allows parents to access progress reports about their child and receive special “postcards” from their child.

“We’re fostering new interactions by using technologies that students already know and enjoy,” Campbell says. “The possibilities are truly exciting.”


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