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Mena, Arkansas, News covering Polk County and the surrounding area

IPad grants to aid special needs children at Mena schools

Article and photos by Ethan Nahté

Karen Parnell, the Independent Living Teacher for Mena Middle School (MMS), submitted and was awarded a $3,000 grant from the Rural Tech Fund. The grant was written to provide iPads with designated communication programs to identified students enrolled at both Louise Durham (LDE) and Holly Harshman Elementary (HHE) schools who are non-verbal, but who would greatly benefit from a communication device.

Parnell said, “The grant that I wrote is from Rural Tech Foundation out of Kentucky. Mena Middle School Assistant Principal Teresa Warner let me know about that opportunity. I wrote the grant and they have been wonderful. If you get the opportunity to look them up, they realize that rural areas do not have access to a lot of technology that urban areas do. That’s their whole goal is to close that divide.”

The Rural Tech Fund was founded by Chris Sanders, who recognized the very real “digital divide” between rural and non-rural areas. The Rural Tech Fund recognizes that talent is distributed equally, but opportunity is not. The Rural Tech Fund is a non-profit organization and donations can be made at

When Parnell was asked if she had a lot of faith in getting the grant, her laughter and response were, “Absolutely not! I’ll tell you something, I shot for the stars. I wrote it for $10,000 because I wanted to meet every student’s need that we had.”

Rural Technology Fund’s COO Claire Copps responded to Parnell and said, “That’s an awful lot. Do you think you could possibly do $3,000?”

Parnell said she could. She got with Nathan Stone and Lorrie Henry from Mena School District’s Tech Department, assistant superintendent Bridget Buckley, and SPED director Christie Harrison. “We discussed what we could purchase. Then we got together with the speech therapist, and I presented it back to Ms. Copps and they approved it.

“Dr. Smith was very gracious and said that if we were able to get them funding, that they would pay for the programs, because the programs are not cheap. I think the starting cost is like $300, and that’s for one student, because it is individualized.

The grant was used to purchase nine iPads with protective cases; Mena Public Schools paid for the recommended communication programs for each device.

The grant allowed the Mena School District to obtain nine devices. Mena Middle School received one, while Holly Harshman Elementary and Louise Durham Elementary split the remainder based on need.

Parnell said, “We have a large number of students who are autistic or non-verbal due to other reasons. This allows them to communicate… along with our speech therapist or teachers, and consultation with the parents we determine which program to put on each iPad because it’s individualized to the student. Each of those students — teachers and the speech therapist have worked with them intensively — to determine which communication program would work the best. The goal is that these iPads will track with those students through our school system, and they will become more and more proficient which will allow them to engage socially and academically with their peers and in classrooms and continue to grow by leaps and bounds.
“It is extremely hard for parents to get insurance approval for a communication device. It’s almost impossible. With these donations, we’re going to be extremely blessed. Our numbers continue to grow, but we’re going be providing these students a voice. They’re going to be able to participate, share their thoughts, and grow academically and socially.

The students go through an evaluation to figure out what the individual needs. Parnell said, “It’s very intensive. The speech therapist would have to try them on different programs and devices. It’s just like I love MS Word. I think Dr. Smith likes Google Docs. Every child has a unique learning style. They kind of help match that up to what works best for that student. Are they able to handle more icons? less icons? A lot of these programs they will be able to build sentences and then paragraphs. Based upon that students’ need is where we go.”

University of Arkansas’ involvement
Madison Maddox, currently enrolled in the SPED and ABA master’s program at the University of Arkansas, along with University of Arkansas Associate Professor Dr. Elizabeth Lorah, secured a grant for multiple Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices. These devices were acquired with the aim of assisting Arkansas schools that may require them.
Maddox, who attended LDE as a child, felt compelled to reach out to her hometown of Mena, offering five AAC devices to students in need. The devices were generously donated to LDE, where students required communication support. Maddox and her colleague spent time distributing the AAC devices and providing training support to the staff. Several of the students quickly took up with Maddox and Lorah, taking the AAC devices for a trial run.

Maddox is about to graduate with her masters in ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) this May. She’ll then be working on her Ph.D. starting this fall.

“In school and with our masters we focus a lot on AAC devices in communication,” she said. “We got a grant, so we wanted to bring that in. I’m very excited.”

Lorah said, “We have an augmentative and alternative communication research lab at the university, which is an interdisciplinary lab between communication sciences and disorders in Special Ed. Madison is also a part of that research laboratory. Through that, we applied for a grant with the College of Education and Health Professions (COEHP) through their WE CARE initiative.”

WE CARE is the Wellness and Education Commitment to Arkansas Excellence. The University of Arkansas is committed to producing impactful research that improves people’s lives, increasing transformative learning opportunities for students, and engaging in meaningful partnerships across Arkansas and beyond.

“They gave us devices to bring to school districts across the state,” Lorah said. “We used that grant money to purchase the devices and technology.”
These particular devices were chosen based on research done in the lab.

“This tends to be one of the more versatile apps. It can be personalized when you’re going to do a broader scale project like this.”

Parnell said, “Holly and LD is where the greatest need was. If we start them young and they track up, we’ll be reaping the benefits at the middle school and the high school.”
Each new school year means the likelihood of having new students who could benefit from such devices and programs. Lorah and Maddox are hoping that U of A will continue to support the project.

Lorah said, “Since we’re a land-grant school in Arkansas, it’s nice to have this type of outreach. It’s an internal grant from the college, so it really depends on the funding we have available next year.”

They will be tracking the program, allowing them to potentially evaluate the success/fail rate, interaction, any tweaks that might need to be made, etc.

“We’re definitely not taking a ‘train and hope’ approach,” Lorah said. “We plan to come back in maybe next month and check in to make sure things are still doing well, and then keep an open line of communication with the teachers.”

Parnell wanted to say a special thank you to assistant principal Teresa Warner for relaying the grant opportunity to her; to Amanda Nash, Jessica Hughes, and Sandra Spencer for proofreading multiple times and their suggestions; and the speech pathologists, Laura Spence and Kaitlyn Bunch.

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