OREM — When a mother noticed her special needs child became more educationally engaged after getting an iPad for Christmas, the idea to enhance special needs education with technology sparked a statewide movement.
Mellanie Taylor, whose 14-year-old daughter Alexia is diagnosed with Down syndrome, brought her idea to her fellow members of the United Angels Foundation, a Utah-based, nonprofit support group for parents of children with disabilities.
“These kids who have special needs have the same dreams and desires as their peers,” the West Jordan mother said. “They need help, and we want to give them the most opportunities as we can so that they can lead as fulfilling lives as they possibly can."
The founders, a Springville family with a child also diagnosed with Down syndrome, then launched a grant program to enrich special needs education by providing local special education classrooms with collections of iPads.
“The aim of the program is to get iPads into these special education classrooms because they’re amazing learning devices,” said United Angels Foundation President Mark Leck. “They provide a multi-sensory learning experience for the students where they can see it, hear it and touch it."
Initiated in May, the grant program was dubbed iPads 4 Angels. Leck said foundation funds consisting of donations and corporate sponsorships back the program, for which special education teachers throughout Utah can apply and request a number of iPads they find suitable for their students.
If approved, the grant will supply the teachers with their requested iPads for a full school year, during which time they are required to submit two reports that document the benefits and challenges the technology presents their students.
Applicants must teach special education in a public Utah school and have a foundation member as a student. Membership is free to anyone who supports a child with any sort of disability, Leck said.
“I’m excited for this to benefit our public school systems here in Utah as well as the special needs community,” Leck said. "We want to make a difference, do good for the community, and help these families who are faced with some greater challenges than others.”
So far, iPads 4 Angels has received 11 applications requesting more than 75 iPads for more than 240 children with disabilities across Utah, Leck said. The application process closes Aug. 15.
Current funds guarantee the foundation will donate about 30 iPads when school starts at the end of August, Leck said.
More donations are needed to fulfill demand, as only 50 percent of iPad requests can currently be filled, Leck said. However, more teachers are still encouraged to apply, as more applications will push for more public and corporate donations. Donations of old devices are also welcome, he said.
Julia Witham, a Thunder Ridge Elementary special education teacher who applied for the iPads 4 Angels, said she has witnessed the benefits of teaching her students with iPads.
“They’re just wonderful to use with students with disabilities because they’re very engaging, and there are a lot of different applications that you can use to help the children learn,” the teacher at the Saratoga Springs school said. “I use them for every level of reading, math, handwriting — just about anything you can think of."
Witham said she already has two iPads for teaching but requested two more from iPads 4 Angels to have more to go around, since she has up to 10 students in her class at a time.
“It’s almost like bringing an extra aide into the classroom,” she said.
To encourage Utah schools to invest more in special needs education, the application asks if the teacher’s school is willing to match the program’s donations, Leck said. So far, about 50 percent of applications have schools that are willing to invest.
Taylor, who was so impressed by how much an iPad helped her daughter's learning abilities at home, personally purchased three iPads for her daughter’s class at Joel P. Jensen Middle School. She said she requested nine more from iPads 4 Angels, so each student could have one for class use.
That school in Jordan School District is one of the schools that agreed to match the iPads 4 Angels donations, Leck said.
Jordan spokeswoman Sandra Riesgraf said district officials welcome the iPads 4 Angels program. Last year, she said, $3.6 million of Jordan School District funds went toward instructional technology costs for both special needs and general student populations.
“We’re always looking for creative ways to provide children with the technology they need to learn, and we’re more than happy to work with them to get what they need,” Riesgraf said.
Those interested in applying or donating can visit www.unitedangelsfoundation.org.