NewSchools Ignite Special Education Challenge

In February 2017, NewSchools Venture Fund launched the NewSchools Ignite Special Education Challenge – open to entrepreneurs developing engaging, technology-enabled learning experiences, instructional content, assessments, administrative tools, and other digital products that support students with disabilities in Pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade.

Click here to apply to the Special Education Challenge!

Why Special Education?

The importance of special education

Across the country, more than 6.4 million students with disabilities are working to achieve their most ambitious dreams and plans. Like all students, this diverse population thrives in part through the support of educators, who collaborate with families and other community members to reduce barriers to learning. At the same time, many schools are struggling to serve these students: More than half of states need additional support to meet federal special education requirements, while nearly 40 percent of students receiving special education services do not graduate from high school.
Read more about the importance of special education.

Critical student needs: How technology can support students with disabilities

In the months leading up to the launch of the Special Education Challenge, we conducted market research with educators and researchers to learn more about challenges and opportunities related to supporting students with disabilities. Based on this research, we believe technology is especially well positioned to support students with disabilities by: making rigorous academic content accessible to a wide range of students, encouraging increased communication and collaboration among diverse learners, supporting skills related to executive functioning and agency, and using data to empower students, families, and educators.
Read more about how technology can address critical needs for students with disabilities.

Catalyzing an ecosystem of special education innovation

We’ve developed a program to support the most promising companies and nonprofit organizations working in this space to learn, connect, and grow together. In addition to grant funding, challenge winners will receive feedback and hands-on support from best-in-class entrepreneurs, educators, researchers, and other experts.
Read more about the NewSchools Ignite virtual accelerator program.

Selection Criteria

We are looking for companies and nonprofit organizations developing products that:

  • Ignite curiosity and facilitate deeper learning, especially for students with disabilities;
  • Address one or more of the critical student needs identified by educators;
  • Are accessible and usable by a wide range of children – especially underserved student populations;
  • Are designed to help students take ownership of their own learning;
  • Support teachers’ delivery of tailored instruction;
  • Have potential to achieve wide distribution and generate sustainable revenue; and
  • Align with NewSchools’ diligence and investment criteria.

Timeline

  • Application open: Thursday, February 16, 2017
  • Application due: Sunday, March 12, 2017 at 11:59PM
  • Semi-finalist interviews (virtual): Wednesday, March 29 – Friday, April 14, 2017
  • Finalists notified by: Friday, April 28, 2017
  • Opening convening + NewSchools Summit 2017 (SF Bay Area): Monday, May 15 – Wednesday, May 17, 2017
  • Accelerator program (virtual): May 2017 – November 2017
  • Closing convening (SF Bay Area): November 2017 (exact dates TBD)

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The importance of special education

Across the country, more than 6.4 million students with disabilities are working to achieve their most ambitious dreams and plans. Like all students, this diverse population thrives in part through the support of educators, who collaborate with families and other community members to reduce barriers to learning. At the same time, many schools are struggling to serve these students: More than half of states need additional support to meet federal special education requirements, while nearly 40 percent of students receiving special education services do not graduate from high school.

Special education is also intimately connected to issues of equity, race, and income. For example, Black students have been disproportionately represented in special education populations for more than 30 years, and are also more likely to be isolated by “restrictive placements and disciplinary consequences.” According to a recent analysis by the U.S. Department of Education, school districts suspend Black students with disabilities at least twice as often as other students with disabilities. Similarly, students from low-income households are more likely to be recommended for special education services, even within schools that are less likely to offer the resources required to support these students’ inclusion within general education classrooms.

Overall, roughly 13 percent of students attending U.S. public schools receive special education services through the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which guarantees all students access to a “free and appropriate public school education.” Instructional approaches used to meet this objective vary along with the unique strengths and needs of each student:

Some students with disabilities are never taken out of general education classrooms; others never enter a regular school building. Some have very mild disabilities observed only in school settings; others have multiple severe disabilities that affect many aspects of their lives. Some spend only minutes each week with a specially trained teacher, others the whole day. Some graduate from high school with a full academic courseload and go on to highly competitive colleges; others drop out of high school entirely; and still others receive special diplomas or certificates of attendance. (National Research Council)

This diversity presents both challenges and opportunities as educators and administrators work with students and families to develop and implement Individualized Education Programs, including accommodations and modifications to support each student’s progress toward learning goals.

The Special Education Challenge is open to entrepreneurs building engaging, technology-enabled learning experiences, instructional content, assessments, administrative tools, and other digital products that support students with disabilities in Pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade. Special consideration will be given to technologies that are accessible and usable by traditionally underserved student populations, as well as products that take advantage of relevant research on learning and advances in mobile and social technologies.

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Critical student needs: How technology can support students with disabilities

In the months leading up to the launch of the Special Education Challenge, we conducted market research – including conversations with educators and researchers working in K-12 districts and charter management organizations across the country – to learn more about challenges and opportunities related to supporting students with disabilities. Below we share some of our insights from this research.

Many educators and researchers believe technology holds the potential to provide value to students with disabilities in a range of learning contexts, from co-taught inclusion classrooms to one-on-one sessions with educators specializing in specific disabilities. At the same time, these experts emphasize that technology alone cannot be used as a panacea for supporting students with disabilities. Ultimately, edtech must function within the constraints of real-world classroom environments and provide value to a wide range of students and teachers. Truly transformative tools will not attempt to standardize or automate instruction, but rather will empower students to take ownership of their own learning while supporting teachers through professional development and other resources. We expect challenge winners’ products will be feasible for use within a range of classrooms and special education service delivery models.

Based on market research, we believe technology is especially well positioned to support students with disabilities by: making rigorous academic content accessible to a wide range of students, encouraging increased communication and collaboration among diverse learners, supporting skills related to executive functioning and agency, and using data to empower students, families, and educators.

Making rigorous academic content accessible to a wide range of students

Special educators emphasize the importance of tools that reduce or remove barriers to rigorous instruction and help to personalize learning based on individual students’ strengths and needs. Rigor requires high expectations for all learners, which necessitates learning environments that encourage multiple means of engagement, representation, action, and expression. These principles can be reinforced by technologies that enable learning across different devices and input interfaces, at school and at home. Such flexibility increases access to educational opportunities that promote mastery of academic content and other mindsets, habits and skills related to positive long-term outcomes.

Encouraging increased communication and collaboration among diverse learners

Like all students, students with disabilities can benefit from opportunities to build relationship skills like communicating clearly, listening actively, cooperating, resisting inappropriate social pressure, and negotiating conflict constructively. As students build the capacity to communicate and collaborate, they can also develop interpersonal competencies including cooperation, assertion, responsibility, and empathy. In addition, improved interactions across academically and socially diverse students are beneficial for all members of a classroom community and increase the likelihood that students will take full advantage of shared educational resources.

Supporting skills related to executive functioning and agency

It is also essential that students with disabilities build executive functioning skills like impulse control, flexible thinking, and self monitoring, which allow students to plan and execute tasks. Such independence is also related to the development of agency, which enables students to “derive a course of action and adjust course as needed to reflect one’s identity, competencies, knowledge and skills, mindsets, and values” (Nagaoka et al, 2015). As students become equipped to encounter and respond appropriately to new learning challenges, they can also develop the ability to self-advocate for the resources and support they need in order to succeed.

Using data to empower students, families, and educators

The academic and social success of students with disabilities is rooted in a learning community that includes students as well as families and educators. Data can play a central role in empowering these stakeholders, creating new opportunities for students to demonstrate mastery of knowledge, providing immediate feedback on performance, and enabling short-term goal setting and positive reinforcement. Data can also provide special educators with critical insights that enable targeted instructional interventions tailored to each student. In addition, there may be opportunities for technology to create more efficiency and transparency in special education management and administration.

Join the Conversation

Do you have ideas about how technology can support learning? Tweet (@nsvf) using the hashtag #NewSchoolsIgnite, or contact us if you’d like to be notified of opportunities to provide product feedback.

Click here to apply to the Special Education Challenge!