The addition of a few iPads to the special education toolbox has raised the achievement bar at Northdale Middle School in Coon Rapids.

In the third year of their use there, the tablet computers have led to increased engagement among some of the most severely disabled students and have accelerated their learning.

Other schools have made use of technology in special education, but Northdale is the "grass roots" of the iPad initiative in Anoka-Hennepin, said teacher Mary Fleegel, who has led the program along with speech language pathologist Kathryn McLachlan.

In Fleegel's classroom for students with developmental and cognitive disabilities, students took turns last week matching pictures on a projector screen and their iPads to vocabulary words about desert biozones as part of a unit on ecosystems. Students used their fingers to tap the correct word, either vocalizing it or letting the computers speak, then touching an arrow to turn the page.

"Rock," murmured eighth-grader Mohamed Omar when a boulder appeared on his screen. The students tapped on words like "cactus," "water," "lizard" and "sun." Each correct answer was greeted by cheers and high-fives.

Fleegel and McLachlan used grant money, school funds and money from the district's technology levy to buy the iPads. They conducted a study of their students with and without the iPads and found the devices generally increased engagement and learning and decreased negative behaviors. They also have noticed that students are able to work independently without constant prompting. Some parents, seeing their children's success in class, have bought iPads for home use, McLachlan said.

Later in the class period, four of the six students took a 20-question quiz on a story Fleegel had read to them, using vocabulary words. The four sat quietly, their eyes fixed on the computer screens, tapping out answers and waiting for the next question to appear. Three of the four made it all the way to the end, a feat that wouldn't have been possible with pencil and paper.

"With paper, some of them will just scrunch the paper," Fleegel said. "The technology has had a lot to do with their engagement and their learning."

Eight-grader Julia Robinson already had participated in a pilot program about the Olympics over the summer. She is basically nonverbal, but she greeted the news of the program's continuation with a big smile, Fleegel said.

"I didn't know what she was learning until we did this," she said.

The program has only a few of the devices, which McLachlan packs up and carries from one classroom to another, taking a few minutes before each class to set up new applications for students of different needs and abilities.

"The iPads are only as valuable as you make them," she said. She added with a laugh, "We feel like we've gotten our money's worth."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409