WakeEd Grants Support Students with Disabilities

“Our WakeEd Partnership Teacher Innovation Grant has been life-changing for my class.”

Kristin Burnette teaches students with significant cognitive and physical disabilities at Hilburn Academy.

Typical classroom libraries consist of paper books that pose a variety of challenges for students with physical, cognitive, and communication limitations. For example, many students struggle with holding a book, turning a page, or seeing details in a picture. “My students could not differentiate colors or tell details about a story because they were visually unclear.” When so much energy is expanded simply accessing a story, it leaves very little energy for reading comprehension.

Like many special education teachers, Kristin has struggled to engage her students in literacy learning and she is working hard to find a solution. “Previously, we printed books in black and white,” utilizing the school’s limited resources to make necessary adaptations.

In 2015, Kristin received a WakeEd Teacher Innovation Grant. Her vision was to move beyond print and paper to engage students in literacy learning digitally, using iPads. An adapted library, enhanced by technology, would provide the flexible resources that the Special Education Department needed to support all student modes of learning.



Thanks @wakeedpa and @bestbuy821 for helping students with intellectual disabilities learn to read!! pic.twitter.com/740TIj5dJr

— Kristin Burnette (@BurnetteKristin) September 27, 2015

“With the iPads, they are able to use the iPad stands and turn the pages easily without tearing a book or having to adapt the pages for easier turning. Now that we have access to the iPads, their learning has increased exponentially. They are able to see stories and interact with them. I can easily enlarge items to draw attention to them in a story. With access to literacy materials that they can use, they don’t have to focus on how to hold a book, they can focus on reading and retelling information from a story.”

Kristin and her colleagues believe that giving their students access to literature will change their lives. By increasing engagement, vocabulary, and reading comprehension, these educators are setting their students up for success after graduation. “Teaching students with intellectual disabilities to read is ground-breaking and we are on the precipice of amazing breakthroughs because of technological advances.”

Kristin also teaches a class for the Triangle Down Syndrome Network, where she has the opportunity to showcase her success with the iPads in her classes. “This grant has gone beyond the walls of my classroom to help me teach parents and community members how having the right technology can influence student achievement in special education classrooms. Through this grant, our special education team is cultivating an environment of learning and success for students with disabilities.”

Less than two years later, in March of 2017, Kristin ran into Teresa Pierrie, WakeEd Director of Programs, in the Main Office at Hilburn Academy, where Teresa was presenting a $1,000 check to Hilburn’s World Cafe Idea Crucible finalists. Kristin shared the positive educational impact of WakeEd’s Teacher Innovation Grant investment is making on her students.

As WakeEd’s Director of Programs, Teresa plays a part in every aspect of Teacher Innovation Grants – from leading grant writing workshops and building the application, to presenting checks and measuring the impact of grant projects. “WakeEd\’s impact is measured one teacher and one school at time. When I walk into a school and see one of our publications, like the Economic Impact Study, or have a teacher like Ms. Burnette  recognize me and enthusiastically share the impact our work is having on her students, I know that we are a making a difference in our efforts to support educators and Wake County Public Schools.”

While they were talking, they made an exciting connection.


Hilburn CTE teacher Michelle Bass and STEAM Coordinator Dianna Stavros have a passion for discovering new ways to engage their students in STEM learning, so they were eager to pitch a project idea at World Cafe this year. Their students were inspired to give back to their school community after hearing about a “toy hacking” event at NC State University, called Santa’s Little Hackers. NC State hosted this seasonal toy drive to adapt toys, making simple modifications to make them accessible for individuals with disabilities. Students wanted to participate in a similar project at Hilburn Academy – one that would benefit their peers with special needs.

“They wrote their Idea Crucible pitch with our students in mind,” Kristin shared. She was incredibly touched when they received funding to make the idea a reality.”

Michelle and Dianna’s students will interview and observe Kristin’s students to gain insight on what modifications need to be made to “typical” toys to make them accessible. Using the $1,000 Idea Crucible grant from WakeEd, they will modify the toys and present them to the students who need them – an exciting pay it forward project that they hope will become school-wide, allowing them to serve students in other areas of Wake County.


I 💜the empathy this project develops. Ss are designing a communication app & others researching how 2 adapt toys 4 kids w/ special needs. pic.twitter.com/603y1MwuCg

— Michelle Bass 💫 (@teachlivelaugh) April 3, 2017

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