Technology makes a difference for Washington Elementary student

2/9/2018 | TACOMA, Washington

The minutes tick by slowly for third-grader Kaleb Ries.

He works at his laptop computer—sliding his fingertips over the tiny dots on a sheet of Braille research notes, soaking in the information, then listening as his computer speaks each letter he types into a PowerPoint presentation.

He and his two dozen Washington Elementary School classmates are creating presentations on significant African Americans, part of their studies during Black History Month.

When the history lesson ends, Kaleb stashes his Braille notes on Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas, puts his computer back on its storage cart and practically skips out of the classroom.

Kaleb stores his classroom computer
Kaleb stores his classroom computer
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In a flash, Kaleb heads upstairs to the room where he’ll meet with teacher Julie Smith, who works with visually impaired students at Washington and other Tacoma schools.

She began working with Kaleb as a second grader. 

Kaleb, Smith explains, “is the kind of kid you go to college to teach.”

When they started working together, Kaleb—who has some limited vision—read mostly enlarged print. But in just one school year, he has mastered Braille, improved his technique and gained reading fluency, Smith said. 

Much of that improvement has come with the help of technology—the voiceover function on his iPad that plays him audio books, the screen reader software that helps him navigate computer commands such as opening or saving a document, and the BrailleNote computer that converts Braille typing into text so his classroom teacher can read his work.

“He uses all the technology,” Smith said. And because of it, she added, “he’s got so many choices.”  

The devices make school “millions of dollars more fun,” according to Kaleb.  

Kaleb reading Braille
Kaleb reads Braille fluently
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“I have more things to do than last year,” he said. ​ ​​​​

He especially loves the “Magic Treehouse” series of books.

“I like to read those books over and over,” he said.

When he’s not studying, reading or listening to his favorite stories, Kaleb participates in his school chess club. He recognizes each piece by its feel. When opponents make a move, they call out their chess board coordinates. Kaleb keeps a running mental tab of each piece’s position as the game progresses, so he can calculate his own moves.

“Blind people can do most of the same things that people with full sight can do,” Kaleb said.

Kristen Boston, Kaleb’s classroom teacher, calls him “one of the most positive kids I have ever worked with. He works extremely hard and does great work.”

Kaleb’s love for learning and technology drew him to address the Tacoma School Board last October and ask board members to put a renewal of a property tax levy for technology on the Feb. 13 ballot. He also spoke at a December breakfast for community members to learn how school tax levies provide the technology to support him and other students in every neighborhood school.

“I didn’t realize there would be people watching me,” he said. “I was just looking down. I found my own way not to be nervous.”

Kaleb told board members he’s thankful for the technology tools he uses at school.

“Even though I am blind,” he said, “these things help me do as well as my other classmates. I love school, and I am happy that these things make it so that I can go to school with my friends.”