When Renee Dawson, the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools coach at Crawford W. Long Middle School in Atlanta, met John*, an eighth grader with learning and speech disabilities, they bonded immediately. Long had just joined the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools program, and Dawson was recruiting members for her new student tech team.
Student tech teams are an integral part of the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools initiative. They not only help with resolving device issues, but they also provide an opportunity for students to take on leadership roles in the school, develop a STEM-based skill set, and collaborate in an innovative learning environment.
A former special education teacher, making her tech team fully inclusive was a priority for Dawson, and she asked John if he wanted to join.
“He said no at first because he was intimidated by it,” she said. “He doubted himself and his abilities with technology.”
Instead, he asked if he could be the tech team “manager,” and Dawson agreed. John began his new role helping Dawson hand out paperwork to classes. She had also asked him to help with student device rollout by handing out the backpacks that came with the Chromebooks and handing out T-shirts to other tech team members.
But then something changed in John. He wanted to take on a bigger role, and before she knew it, John had become the “leader” of rollout. He met every class at the door of the cafeteria, where rollout was taking place, and told them the rules and directed them where to go to make sure they got everything they needed.
“All the kids were totally listening to him and following every single direction he gave them,” Dawson explained. “He beamed the whole day in that role.”
Since then, John has become a full-fledged member of Long’s student tech team. He coordinates device checks on the eighth grade hall, and he was even unanimously elected vice president by his peers.
“All the kids just follow his lead. It’s amazing to see because in all of his classes he’s very mild-mannered, doesn’t say much, so to see him come out of his shell like this has been really amazing,” Dawson said. “I told him from the beginning that he could participate as much as he wanted to or felt comfortable with, and he has tried everything we have done as a tech team. He’s really motivated to do a good job and make this something that he could use in the future.”
Because John is served in a small-group setting for all of his core content classes, the only time he previously was able to interact with non-disabled peers was during his elective courses and at lunch. In addition, his asthma has prevented him from being able to play sports, so the student tech team is his first true “team” experience.
His new teammates accepted him immediately, Dawson said. “He has friends that he would have never had the opportunity to meet otherwise. They talk on the phone, they text, they play Minecraft together.”
John is not the only traditionally marginalized student at Long being positively impacted by being on the student tech team. Dawson said a student with a behavior disorder has made so much progress thanks to participating on the tech team that he is beginning to join general education classes.
“He said being on the tech team has motivated him because students have to maintain a positive behavior and academic record to be on the tech team,” Dawson explained. “It’s a privilege. So a lot of these kids have really stepped up their behavior and stepped up their academic game to make sure they can stay on the tech team because they enjoy it so much.”
Another tech team member who is experiencing homelessness actually teaches a coding class to students, under the supervision of the school’s STEM teacher, during Long’s daily intervention block.
“The tech team has become the ‘why’ for many of these students who previously felt like they weren’t good at anything or didn’t belong anywhere,” Dawson said. “In our neighborhood, there are really two options—you join a gang, or you get out of the neighborhood. Verizon Innovative Learning is giving the students a way to practice skills for the future that are going to get them out of the neighborhood and change the trajectory of their lives.”
*Student name has been changed for privacy.