Jason Glass and Sharon Porter Robinson stand with a group of five smiling women who are holding onto a glass trophy.

The Henderson Assistive Technology Team was presented with the 2023 Grissom Award for Innovation in Special Education at the Kentucky Board of Education’s (KBE’s) Aug. 3 regular meeting. Presenting the award were Education Commissioner Jason E. Glass, left, and KBE Chair Sharon Porter Robinson, right. Photo by Toni Konz Tatman, Kentucky Department of Education

The Henderson Assistive Technology Team (HATT) was presented with the 2023 Grissom Award for Innovation in Special Education at the Kentucky Board of Education’s (KBE’s) Aug. 3 regular meeting.

The Henderson Assistive Technology Team serves some of the Henderson County School’s most complex needs students.

“You have opened the world to so many children,” said KBE member Patrice McCrary. “Thank you for what you are doing. You are so appreciated.

The Grissom Award is given each year to Kentuckians or a Kentucky organization to honor outstanding dedication to improving student achievement for students with disabilities. The award recognizes those who exhibit leadership, commitment and service to promote high student achievement through instructional equity and in closing the achievement gap for all children.

The HATT team members honored were Sherri Hogg-Hazelwood, Michelle Hillenbrand, Julie Holland, Mary Jo Montgomery, April Perry, Kim Reusch, Amber VanMeter and Sarah Zigler. The multidisciplinary team members represent occupational, physical and speech language therapy and administrative support.

“Congratulations to the Henderson Assistive Technology Team,” said Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason E. Glass. “On behalf of the Kentucky Board of Education and all of the staff here at the Kentucky Department of Education, I want to personally thank you for your exceptional dedication to the education of all students.”

In 2019, several Henderson preschool and elementary students with complex needs did not have a way to communicate their basic wants and needs. They relied on gestures or pointing to communicate. Usually close family members anticipated their needs, but less familiar people often did not understand what the students wanted, which frequently led to behaviors like yelling, crying, throwing things or hitting. Thirty percent of these students left school without a functional means of communication.

“There was a need for (assistive technology) to be more readily available in our district, and because of the dedication of our HATT team, we are making great strides towards providing a voice for every student,” said Perry, a speech language pathologist with the Henderson County Schools who nominated HATT for the award.

She said the multidisciplinary team used their areas of expertise to identify the abilities and needs of students, and sought continuing education and grants to fund the effort to provide services in assistive technology for all special education students in the school district.

Their efforts led to the following:

  • In 2020, a grant from Voya funded the purchase of the communication app CoughDrop, an augmentative communication system secondary teachers and students now use during classroom and community-based instruction.
  • A grant from the WHAS Crusade for Children in 2021 helped the district purchase iPads for all of the speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, school psychologists, classroom teachers and some program assistants in moderate and severe disabilities classrooms across the district. The iPads were loaded with augmentative communication and educational apps.
  • During the 2022-2023 school year, Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief grant money was used to install large communication Core Boards on the elementary school’s playgrounds, allowing the students to ask others to play, make their preferences known and enjoy recess with their peers. Families have access to the boards on the playgrounds outside of school hours. The HATT team collaborated to create classroom Core Boards that allow teachers to model core vocabulary and language and help students to communicate their wants and needs. This grant also allowed the district to purchase other communication applications and technology to allow students to comment and respond, make choices and greet others.
  • During the 2022-2023 school year, additional funding provided 27 personal communication systems for students. These systems are programmed and customized to each student’s specific strengths and needs and sent home with them each day. The district has 10 loaner iPads that are loaded with communication apps to allow the district to explore what the students will have the greatest success with before getting them their own device.

“We just thank you for this honor,” said Perry, a member of the team. “We work with preschool to high school and we thank you for honoring us for what we do.”

The Johnnie Grissom Award was established to honor the work and dedication of the late, long-time Kentucky Department of Education associate commissioner. Grissom was employed by the department from 1993 to 2010. She previously served as a director at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and as a teacher of special needs and gifted students in Red Springs, N.C.