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Special-Ed Case Management Software Wins EduPitch Contest

The grand prize winner in Teach for America's fourth annual EduPitch contest this week was Playground IEP, a special education software that streamlines case-management tasks to reduce workload for overwhelmed staff.

Special education students gathered around a tablet
(TNS) — The seven years Sean Klamm spent as a special educator at a Chicago charter school were the most rewarding — and most stressful — of his life.

In 2014, he joined the startup campus on the city's South Side as its only special education teacher, starting with three students. Klamm built the program from scratch, rooted in "love and high expectations," he said, and by the time he was appointed director of special education it had 150 students and 20 staff members.

"I was full of excitement, determination and exuberance to serve my students," the former Teach for America educator said. "What I did not have was the resources or the tools."

So, he built his own, and now sells his organizing system from a business he runs in San Antonio.

On Wednesday, Klamm was one of four local residents who presented ideas for educational equity initiatives to a panel of judges, competing for cash prizes in Teach for America's fourth annual EduPitch contest, a "Shark Tank"-style event before an audience at the Carver Community Cultural Center.

Klamm's brainchild, Playground IEP, a special education software that streamlines case management tasks and enables educators to devote more time to students with disabilities, received the grand prize of $5,000. The program was inspired by "five years of pain, passion and being so frustrated that nothing existed to help make my life easier," he said.

During his half-decade as a special education director, Klamm said, he never once had a fully staffed team, and he and his colleagues drowned in paperwork and administrative tasks. They tried everything from Google spreadsheets to handcrafted poster boards and jam-packed binders, but teachers would still come to him, admitting they had no idea some students had disabilities.

"I thought, 'This is crazy. We are spending so much time with paperwork and not enough time actually serving students,'" he said. "When I left the school in October 2021, I decided I am going to build the tools that I wish I had as a director of special ed."

Thus, Playground IEP was born with a simple motto: "Students, not spreadsheets."

The software is designed to automate the most manual and tedious tasks of special education on a single platform giving teachers simplified access to student information like Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs. Its testing accommodation dashboard ensures students receive proper support during exams, and its calendar feature automates the scheduling of IEP meetings, one of the most time-consuming tasks for special educators, Klamm said.

Klamm, who moved to San Antonio last month, said the program deploys a new class of artificial intelligence that helps write comprehensive portions of IEPs, completing a task that typically takes days in a matter of minutes.

Playground IEP is currently used in nine states and around two dozen schools, including Essence Prep, a new charter school on the East Side, he said. Klamm plans to use the Teach for America funding to improve the product and offer subsidies to schools that can't afford it.

"Teachers have a lot going on," he said. "They are teachers, sometimes social workers, lesson planners, curriculum experts, and what AI does is alleviate some of the heavy lifting of planning and creating so that teachers can spend more time with their students instead of behind their computers."

The judges — Jonathan Gurwitz, partner with KGBTexas Communications; Kara Allen, chief people, impact and belonging officer for Spurs Sports & Entertainment; Christina Martinez, the San Antonio Independent School District board president; and Hailey Arnold, a junior at KIPP University Prep High School — awarded prizes to other finalists as well.

Katie Bingham, a math teacher at Cooper Academy at Navarro, an alternative school in SAISD, received $2,500 for her Nature Nurtures initiative, a yearly senior trip to Castroville Regional Park that teaches stress management skills to at-risk students.

Bingham said the environment and phone-free exercise helps them build trust with their teachers, work through social anxieties and learn how to better react to stressors.

"As an alternative campus, many of our students struggle a lot with coping mechanisms that are very necessary not just in high school but also college or when they go into the workforce," she explained. "Not having these skills puts them at a disadvantage."

She hopes to use the funding to expand the program to other grade levels and create outdoor areas on campus where students can decompress.

Principal Becky Lopez of IDEA South Flores College Prep secured $1,500 for her EmpowerINK program, which aims to foster critical thinking skills for underserved students through writing.

"We know that a lot of our students, particularly on the South Side, have difficulties with embracing their identity as well as how to showcase their voice in a way that can be heard loudly and do that through writing," she said.

While 100 percent of her school's graduating class have immediately matriculated to college, Lopez said only about half have obtained their bachelor's degree within six years. She believes the writing-based curriculum will help more students reach that goalpost and plans to use the funding to help students participate in summer writing programs at top universities, identify student publishing opportunities and purchase more inclusive study materials.

Counselor Yesenia Hernandez won $1,000 to tackle food insecurity for the KIPP Cevallos charter school community. The campus food pantry also received the most votes from the audience, earning Hernandez's department free Whataburgers for a year.

During the pandemic, Hernandez said, a district-wide survey found that a third of her school's 1,700 students were worried about running out of food at home, and many of them wanted to drop out to join the workforce.

"Hunger doesn't just make learning difficult," she said. "It also increases a student's stress and anxiety, impacting their behaviors and their willingness to self-regulate."

The food pantry has provided emergency food assistance to 350 families since its launch last spring. The funding earned through EduPitch will help pay for a refrigerator so the pantry can stock meat and dairy products.

"In my 20 years as an educator, I have spent countless dollars buying snacks to give to students throughout the day," Hernandez said. "But getting a bag of chips or some crackers at school is not the same as the safety of knowing that they will have a meal at home."

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