Special needs learning support? Here’s an app for that!

Second grader Ian Browne-McClain is very happy with the new iPad from the Foundation for Inclusive Religous Education (F.I.R.E.). Enjoying his reaction are para educator Margy Sparks, Father Steve Cook, pastor of St. Peter’s Parish and Erin Wilson, special education teacher and coordinator. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter

KANSAS CITY — Children and high school students with special needs now have learning opportunities more in line with their classmates in Catholic schools across the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. The Foundation for Inclusive Religious Education, F.I.R.E., presented iPads to seven area schools with students with diagnosed special needs — St. Peter’s, St. Thomas More and Visitation elementary schools in Kansas City, St. Therese of Parkville, Nativity of Mary School in Independence and Archbishop O’Hara and St. Mary high schools. St. Gregory Barbarigo School in Maryville will also receive an iPad, as the school plans to start a kindergartner with F.I.R.E. in the upcoming 2012-13 school year. St. Elizabeth School had previously purchased several iPads for their students with special needs, with help from a grant the school received.

F.I.R.E. funding subsidizes the costs of special education services for children with diagnosed special needs, including Down syndrome, developmental delays, Lowe’s syndrome, spina bifida, autism, and cerebral palsy, in their parish school or high school with their siblings, friends and peers.

Students with mild learning disabilities also receive support and services through modifications and instruction provided by special education teachers and para-educators within inclusive classrooms and resource rooms.

Thanks to a matching grant from the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund and to the generosity of local donors, F.I.R.E. executive director Maura Nulton said they were able to purchase 12 iPads. The units remain the property of F.I.R.E., but are on loan to the schools while they have students with special needs who receive paraprofessional support and could benefit from the iPad apps and other capabilities. When the students graduate, leave the school or no longer need the units, they are to be returned to F.I.R.E., which will then loan them to another school where students with special needs would benefit from them.

It was midmorning on Feb. 2. All the kids in Michelle Burton’s second grade classroom at St. Peter’s School in Kansas City were curious about the parents, reporters and TV camera clustered in a corner of the room. Principal Janet Spallo introduced F.I.R.E. board members Mary Madden and Joshua Brewster, who smilingly handed a box to Erin Wilson, special education teacher and coordinator. Wilson called Jack McCaskill, one of Burton’s students, and Ian Browne-McClain, whose teachers are Leslie Fitzgerald and Cathy Grant. The boys jumped out of their seats and approached her, both eyeing the open box she held about their shoulder-height. Jack peered into the box and smiled; Ian peeked in next and said, “Hello!” to the iPad lying there.

Wilson handed each boy an iPad with the instruction to sit back down with it. Parents and classmates gathered around Jack and Ian, eager to see and maybe touch the iPad. One student moaned aloud, “My mom has one of those but she won’t let me play with it!”

iPads are a line of Apple tablet computers designed to be a platform for audio-visual media, including books, magazines and newspapers, movies, music, games, apps (applications) and Internet content. The iPad is controlled by a multi-touch display as well as a virtual onscreen keyboard (instead of a physical keyboard) and uses a Wi-Fi connection to access local networks and the Internet.

Wilson, who has worked with kids with special needs at St. Peter’s for six years, said she is excited to learn to use the iPad and work with the students using it. “It can be a big help with their educational needs,” she said.

iPads can be especially useful for kids with fine motor and verbal skills challenges, she said. There are apps to help relay messages.

Wilson said she, along with other special needs teachers and paraprofessionals who work at schools that are part of F.I.R.E., will attend an Apple Store in-service training program to learn to find the best apps for the students they work with.

“These iPads will be great support for the kids as they learn Math, reading and spelling,” she said. “They will also be a great supplement to the regular curriculum. All of our St. Peter’s students, those with special needs and those without — they all will benefit from this, because though they learn at different rates, they learn from each other.”

Marita Burrow, diocesan Coordinator of Special Needs, also received one of the iPads. She is learning to use the device, and is impressed with the way the iPad aids in learning through the senses. “There are visual components, tactile, auditory and cognitive components,” she said. “The kiddo can see a letter, hear its sound, trace its shape and see its use in a word.” For children with visual or hearing impairments, backgrounds and tones can be changed to assist them.

F.I.R.E. Board member Mary Madden told The Catholic Key, “We are so excited to present the iPads to the children as part of our ongoing commitment to providing the very best opportunities for educational enrichment. It has been widely publicized that the children in general, and children with special educational needs in particular, respond very well to the tools developed by iPad technology. While the device was not created with special-needs consumers in mind, it appears that the children stay connected to the apps that teach spelling, counting, drawing, and remembering pictures for much longer periods of time than before. We have heard some parents say that through the device, their children have been able to communicate their thoughts to adults for the first time. One expert calls it ‘a quiet revolution’ for the autism community.”

F.I.R.E. plans to continue to provide access to additional applications as they are developed by Apple, Madden said. “The degreed special educators, as well as our para-educators, are excited about this opportunity for the children, and we can tell by the expressions on their faces that the children are excited too!”

Burrow said that she will, through research, discussions and experimentation, find apps that are good for students with learning and behavioral challenges, and relay that information to teachers. “For example,” she said, “a child with autism would benefit from a visual scheduling app so they know what they’re doing now and what they will be doing next. Scheduling apps with photos or drawings of teachers or textbooks would help the student transition from one activity to another. They also would help students with fine motor skills.”

Really great apps have components in all the senses, Burrow, a mother of three, said. “With the iPad, the apps and programs become very mobile, catering to the needs of the kiddos.”

She sees many benefits from the technology for children with special needs, for their families, teachers and fellow students. But she cautioned that she wants kids who have developed some fine motor skills to still use a pencil or pen and paper for certain projects or learning rather than becoming dependent on the iPad.

F.I.R.E. board members distributed one iPad to Nativity of Mary School, one to St. Thomas More and one to Visitation, two each to St. Therese School in Parkville and St. Peter’s, one iPad to St. Mary’s High School in Independence and two to Archbishop O’Hara High School.


  1. February 17, 2012 at 3:56 pm #

    Ian Brown-MCClain, you are the cutest kid ever!!  So happy to see you received an iPad. I’m sure  you will have a lot of fun with it.

  2. February 17, 2012 at 7:11 pm #

    Just saw my boy’s picture and it is so cute.  Love your IPad.


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September 28, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph