AZ School - Samuel Ace

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Arizona School for the Blind (ASB) Empowers Students Through Accessible Books and Technology Prowess

The Arizona School for the Blind (ASB), Tucson, empowers students to be lifetime learners through a combination of the right teaching strategies and supportive assistive technologies. Students at ASB have vision disabilities, such as degenerative eye conditions, low vision or blindness. The Principal, Samuel Ace, a specialist in educational and assistive technologies, describes the daily practice of students reading accessible textbooks using technology to learn important skills. "It's never too late to teach a student to read Braille or to use an assistive technology device," said Mr. Ace. "We get accessible books into the hands of our students as quickly as possible in all grades."

Where does ASB find accessible books for its students? In the past two years, Bookshare's collection of 75,000 accessible books has helped ASB move closer to its goal. These digital books include textbooks, fiction, non-fiction, children's literature, novels and periodicals. The online library is free for U.S. students with qualified print disabilities thanks to an award from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.

Deborah (Debbie) Hartz, a high school Language Arts teacher, uses Bookshare extensively to merge the needs of her students with curricular demands of individual courses and the Arizona State Standards. "When we develop a reading program to maximize student achievement, it is critical to locate books that students are motivated to read and that are sufficiently challenging, but not frustrating," she said.

"When I began teaching, I believed that students would get better at reading if they just read more," said Mrs. Hartz. "Unfortunately, when given a choice, students select books that are comfortable to read. They may fixate on an author or genre and read several books without encountering new vocabulary. Most of the words that people learn are absorbed inadvertently through books, newspapers, manuals, or other types of reading material. Students who do not read regularly or who read materials that are easy, often find that their reading levels plateau at about the sixth-grade level."

A student using a portable Braille display.

The Arizona School for the Blind uses the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) computer-based assessments offered by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) ( to test students' reading skills in the fall and the spring. MAP tests student growth and gives teachers feedback on areas in which students need support for learning. The test adjusts the level of difficulty in questions according to the responses of individual students.

Students who use braille read the test questions on a refreshable braille display or connect to a computer equipped with screen reading software. Refreshable braille displays can be spotted all over the school thanks to a literacy grant from the AZ Department of Education and the support of state legislators and the community.

Mrs. Hartz processes her students' MAP information and then plans instruction in classic literature by downloading the novels from Bookshare. She checks her selections against to identify reading levels for books appropriate to students' abilities. This system helps to provide students with age-appropriate books and to set a progressive reading plan. Sometimes, she requests an embossed braille copy for added tactile support or for group study. "We want students to learn to read in braille first and not to rely on just their listening skills," she said.

Many years ago, a 15 year old student transferred to ASB from a public school after losing his sight. He complained about the difficulty he had learning to read braille at his age. He noticed that many of the fast braille readers began their instruction in second grade. Mrs. Hartz encouraged him to work on improving his skills and told him that she would learn to read braille tactually. This student, Gabino Lares, earned his master's degree in education and is now teaching technology at ASB. Today, Mr. Lares emphasizes the importance of literacy. "The ability to read and write, to access information—whether it is in a book, a manual, or menu—is essential," he said. "If you can read...what is expected of you rises. You can participate on terms of equality in school and on the job."

Growth in Students' Reading Skills/Scores

Principal Ace invites local organizations to visit ASB to experience the power of Bookshare. He's convinced that electronic text has increased his students' reading and writing skills and proficiency as evidenced in this reading growth chart.

Chart titled '% Growth Reading'

Arizona School for the Blind (ASB) Two-Year Student Growth Chart in Reading - Percentage of Students By Grade Who Improved Reading Skill as Measured on the Northwest Evaluation Assocation (NWEA) MAP Assessment

"More students pass the AIM test (Academic Improvement Measure) using our accessible, individualized and integrated learning process," said Mr. Ace.

"Students are motivated by getting ebooks quickly. Our staff saves time by not having to do conversions to Braille. Using Bookshare, students download a book in seconds, are studying more, taking more notes, and reading comprehensively."

"What we do at our school has implications for all of education, not only for students with sensory and print disabilities," shared Mr. Ace. "Students who learn to read accessible books and have the technology prowess to do so will enjoy a successful future far beyond their school endeavors."

Note: ASB's sister school, the Arizona School for the Deaf, also emphasizes accessible literacy teaching with technology. Students use various means of access from direct ASL (American Sign Language) videos to electronic texts from Bookshare combined with text reading software.

This Bookshare Member Story was written by Valerie C. Chernek with Samuel Ace in April 2010.