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Technology, team effort remove barriers to learning for 7th grader

Feb. 10, 2016

sophia The snoring dog is the first clue that this is not an ordinary 7th grade classroom. It’s the sunroom at Sophia Doebbert’s home, which is her classroom for about half of the school year. It looks like mission control, with Sophia at the center of an arc of computer screens, her motorized wheelchair temporarily in “park.” Winston, the dog, is sleeping noisily on her lap, but Sophia is alert and working hard.


Creating equal access to educational opportunities means adapting classrooms and processes to remove barriers. The goal is that all students can participate to their fullest ability and achieve to their highest potential. For Sophia, the effort is broad, including many district staff members, specialized technology and fine-tuned, daily coordination.


“I’m smart and do not have a cognitive disability,” said Sophia. She uses eye-gaze technology on a Tobii computer, typing her response to questions by using her eyes to select each letter. Sophia was born with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a genetic disorder that affects the control of muscle movement. The loss of nerve cells in the spinal cord and brainstem leads to weakness and wasting of muscles. It contributes to having a fragile immune system, which is why Sophia spends flu and cold season, working from her home base. What SMA does not affect, however, is intellectual abilities.


On this day, Sophia is attending her Valley View classes from home. But via webcam, she is alongside her classmates in Jane Andrews’ classroom working on poetry “stations.” She is writing an acrostic poem, where she chooses a word that begins with each of the letters of her name that describes her. She selects each letter on a keyboard that appears on the monitor, opens a new windows to grab a photo for her poem, and a “tool box” to crop the photo, all literally in the blink of an eye. S = sophisticated.


“I like going to school and the communicator lets me talk to my teachers and classmates,” Sophia said. “I use it for group work and for giving book reports.” Before she received her first Tobii in fifth grade, she had to rely on facial expressions and her parents or nurses to help others understand her.


Team Sophia

emily voelker While Sophia takes care of the hard work and creativity pertaining to her academics, Team Sophia paves the way so that she can be engaged with classmates and teachers and so her learning can be as independent as possible. Paraprofessional Margi Zander is at Sophia’s right side, positioning a laptop with a webcam so that Sophia can see and hear the activities in each of her classes, and they can see her. They know her because she was able to be in the classroom until mid-November this year, thanks to mild weather and a late flu season. Paraprofessional Nick Westcott is in the classroom at Valley View, adjusting the laptop there. Sophia’s teachers coordinate with Zander to be sure she has the lesson plan and knows what the class will be doing each day.


Emily Voelker, special services case manager, coordinates with teachers and helps ensure that Sophia does not get eye-fatigue by sometimes adapting a project or test so that she can take it orally or in some way not reliant on eye-gaze technology. The district’s assistive technology specialist, helped secure just the right kinds of technology to match Sophia’s needs and capabilities to her academic work.


Also supporting Sophia are physical therapist Jan Dahl, and Kari Cahn speech/language pathologist, who has helped develop Sophia’s use of the Tobii. Valley View school nurse Colleen Ziebol is always on the lookout for an outbreak of flu that signals the beginning of Sophia’s homeschooling season, and nurse Amy Runion is with Sophia on days when she can be in class at Valley View. She is a frequent visitor when school happens from home. Sue Schmidt, district-wide physical impairment/health disabilities consultant, makes a weekly visit to Sophia’s home to be sure everything is running smoothly. District office administration offers assistance as the support system surround Sophia is tweaked each year.


Sophia makes the most of everyone’s efforts by being a good student who is very engaged in her schoolwork and academically on par with her classmates. Like any middle schooler, she has definite likes and dislikes. “I liked looking up Lucretia Mott for social studies,” Sophia said, via the Tobii which she has named Katie. “I enjoyed reading about who she was and the historical story of her life. I still love looking stuff up and research.” She likes to reading, naming a smaller Tobbii device Anne for Anne of Green Gables, and she enjoys art and uses computer programs to draw and paint. “I drew a picture called ‘Dark Summer Night with a Light,” she said, “because I remembered how the sky looked one night when I was on vacation with my parents.” Math, on the other hand, is the work she is often trying to negotiate with her mom to get out of.


Sophia and ‘Speedster’ perform

sophia at VV Although Sophia describes herself as patient that does not necessarily apply to her driving. She calls her motorized wheelchair “Speedster” and she looks anything but patient zooming down the hallway at Valley View, headlights flashing, with her nurse and para stepping quickly to keep up. But Sophia and Speedster look altogether different at ballet class, an activity she has been involved in since she was seven. Choreographed turns and twirls coordinated with able-bodied dancers combine to make an amazing dance experience for Sophia and for audience members.


“She is not afraid of the public eye,” said Andrea Doebbert, Sophia’s mom, as she listed a number of organizations that have used photos of Sophia modeling equipment. Sophia is also happy to show a video of a dance that she and a family friend performed at a talent show during their family vacation.


Which brings us to the “home team.” When she is schooling from home, Sophia’s mom is on hand for medical needs that may arise. “The academic complexity and all the technical stuff is beyond me,” she said. She describes her role as being in the “background,” but her words of encouragement and attention to Sophia’s comfort as she pops in and out during the day are clearly important to her daughter’s success in school. Doug, Sophia’s dad who works from home, is also able to assist with a lift if needed. Younger sisters Evie and Lila make for a very lively household, along with Frankie, the fat cat, and Winston, the snoring dog, one of which is typically cuddled up on Sophia’s lap while she works away on school assignments.


After school, Sophia connects with friends online, particularly those she has met with the same type of muscular disorder. They get together on a penguin game where they visit one another’s igloos, dress their characters, and go places like the library or soda shop. When Sophia is at Valley View, she has many friends who gather around as evidenced in several strips of photos from last fall’s Halloween party. Andrea commented that having a wheelchair-accessible photo booth made a big difference in helping Sophia feel included. Many of her friends are those she has known since her days at Countryside Elementary, including a boy who waits faithfully by the school door each morning to hold it open for her.


Community service is also a part of Sophia’s life, as it is with many of her peers. A week ago she donated 15 inches of her thick, dark hair to Locks of Love. “I had told her about Locks of Love a long time ago,” Andrea said. “When she decided she wanted to cut her hair, it was harder on me than it was on her!”


Sophia says she is a typical teenager. She loves playing computer games, the latest Star Wars movie (especially the character Kylo Ren), and Taylor Swift, whom she got to meet after a concert once. Sophia’s goal is to someday work in a technology-related field. “I am a quick learner of technology,” she said. Those around her say Sophia is resilient, intuitive, joyful and funny, and for that reason they all enthusiastically attack anything that gets in the way of her success.


“She is our inspiration,” said Andrea, “we are just trying to keep up with her!”


 See more photos on Flickr.