Building a Plane While Flying It: How UDL Helps Katy ISD Support All Students across eLearning and in-person

by Luke Trayser

Overview of a student working on a computer with an instructor on the screen

Whether in-person, eLearning, or a hybrid—all kinds of possibilities are in the works. Educators and school systems feel like they’re building a plane while flying it as the environment shifts daily.


Frankly, it’s a lot to juggle. And we haven’t even gotten to special education yet!


In special education classrooms, there’s a core and universal problem: Students quickly fall behind when eLearning. Students with IEPs, disabilities, English language learning needs, and socioeconomic issues need support to fully access their curriculum, which makes for a serious eLearning puzzle in many school districts nationwide.


But there’s a way to bridge the gap, and it comes in the form of Universal Design for Learning. UDL believes that there’s not one way to learn, and as such, there should not be one way to teach. It guides the creation of flexible learning environments that embrace the different ways students learn. At a high level, it can be summed up with three key principles:


  1. Multiple means of representation to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge
  2. Multiple means of expression to provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know
  3. Multiple means of engagement to tap into learners’ interests, offer appropriate challenges, and increase motivation

In a recent webinar, Katy ISD (a school district of over 80,000 students just west of Houston) shed light on how they implemented Universal Design for Learning to accommodate student learning in the spring of 2020. Their insight and data will be invaluable for educators in the years to come.

Ready or not, eLearning is happening!

Katy ISD was running smoothly and exposing both special education and general education to the lasting benefits of UDL. Then COVID hit.


Suddenly, 84,000 students, families, and staff members across 68 campuses dove into remote learning. With one week to prepare, Katy ISD honed in on what was needed. As it turned out, having accessible district resources and universal tools that support all learners has proven valuable and critical. COVID brought a sudden and less-than-ideal transition, but that uninterrupted access was a massive benefit that can’t be understated.

The UDL team at Katy ISD

Patty Sullivan, M.Ed., ATP, is the Assistive Technology Team Lead at Katy ISD. She’s been in Texas for 10 years, and she was in Maine before that. In both spots, she built a career working with alternative access. “I look at ways to meet students’ needs on a global scale,” she said. “When I got my Master’s in Education, my whole focus was on UDL. How do we develop a system that’s part of the fabric of the environment? That’s difficult to do in a traditional setting, and it’s a tough sell because we’re so used to doing things one way and one way only.”


Today, Patty runs Katy ISD’s team of 11 people and has a focus on working with the executive special education director and two others that comprise what they call the UDL Road Warriors. Road Warriors is Katy’s special education administration team that develops action plans for the implementation of universal tools.


The team also included stakeholders in 504, dyslexia, and English language learners. Collaborative relationships were built with them and Katy’s IT partners, and the scope was pinpointed on Literacy to support reading and writing. Tools were researched and chosen, and strategies, tools, and training methods were created.


As a result of this collaborative approach, the UDL tools in Katy ISD’s toolbelt have benefited both special education and general education populations.

Building capacity and involving others

Building Bridges with Katy ISD Assistive Technology team

Throughout the school year, Katy ISD provides training that supports a UDL mindset. Professional development, new teacher and paraprofessional pre-service training, parent training, resource and in-class support teacher training, and ongoing presentations to stakeholder groups help to keep AT and UDL top of mind. On top of that, Patty and her team share resources and devote extra time, whether it’s giving tips for reluctant readers and writers or holding universal tools training for parents in the evening.

So, what exactly are those UDL tools, and how have they helped?

Ask Patty and her team for tools and strategies that remove barriers and facilitate student learning, and they’ll happily answer from experience. Co:Writer and Snap&Read are fully integrated with Seesaw and Canvas.


Co:Writer is a writing sidekick that uses grammar-smart and vocabulary-smart word prediction, translation support, and speech recognition to help students write, and Snap&Read offers read aloud, dynamic text leveling, and translation to help students understand what they’re reading. Both programs are Google Chrome extensions, so it’s easy for a student to open a new Chromebook and start reading and writing right away.


Inside Katy ISD, students, teachers, and parents tell Patty and her team how having those tools impacts them on a daily basis. “That’s really the most powerful data point,” Patty said. “We still have some hurdles, but when the impact is that powerful, and it’s coming straight from the students, it takes on new weight and meaning. It’s made such a difference.”

Some of the amazing students at Katy ISD

Student Parker working with his teacher using Co:Writer for Dyslexia

Parker (Grade 5) is supported with dyslexia intervention. He loves math and science and says the most difficult thing about school is reading, but using a computer makes it easier. He uses Co:Writer in Google Docs.

Matthew (Grade 4) also receives dyslexia support. His favorite thing about school is history, and the most difficult thing is reading and writing. He told us, “I like how Snap&Read can change difficult words into easier words.” He uses Co:Writer and Snap&Read, and he shares his work with teachers using Google Drive.

Student Matthew working on writing
Student Jack using a text-to-speech tool

Jack (Grade 7) began using text-to-speech and word prediction in Grade 3. He’s an amazing guy, and very bright. He told us that Co:Writer is back in his toolbox, and he uses it a lot for his middle school writing. Even learning at home, he was much more independent, which his mom was very thankful for. Snap&Read data shows that Jack has read over 90,000 words.

Rachel (Grade 4) absolutely loves drawing. She’s a new user of technology for writing, and she receives dyslexia support. She has some difficulty getting ideas on paper, but the added technology is helping her a lot.

Student Rachel working on a tablet
Student Olivia working on her tablet

Olivia (Grade 4) receives in-class support ELAR and receives dyslexia intervention. She says that because all her assignments are through the computer, using the tools has become easier. “They are really helpful so I can do my work without needing as much help.”

How you can influence change

If you’re trying to move your school district forward and you want to maximize your ability to support your students and sustain it over time, here are some ideas to keep you motivated.


  1. Develop an action plan. Write it down.
  2. Build relationships with key departments and collaborate with them. Katy ISD gushed about its IT department and how instrumental they are to making AT a success.
  3. Be part of administrator teams.
  4. Provide professional UDL development to district employees.
  5. Give training to parents, students, educators, and administrators.
  6. Talk to and learn from districts where UDL is implemented well.

“Universal Design for Learning is not only special education, instructional technology, or a checklist,” Patty says. “It’s more than simply accessibility. It’s about activating thinking, structuring lessons to provide deep understanding, allowing flexible options for students, and keeping them interested and motivated as they learn. UDL is a lesson planning process.

The future of Universal Design for Learning

A crucial factor for UDL is making sure its tools are not just seen as something for special education only. “There’s a stigma that’s still out there: ‘Oh, that’s for those kids,’” Patty said. “But being able to share info with the people at the table, including financial benefit, is critical. And moving forward, it’s really about noticing the sparks that are happening on campuses and stoking those fires.”


That goes back to the powerful first hand testimonies Katy ISD students are already giving about how their school experience has transformed. Couple those stories with passionate teachers who fire people up, and you have a formula for UDL that truly is universal.

The future of education

With all the uncertainty surrounding education, one thing is certain: learning needs to happen, and it will happen, regardless of where it takes place. Katy ISD has worked hard on its infrastructure to ensure its 80,000+ students grow—be it at school, at home, or a combination of the two. Patty knows there is plenty of work still to be done, but we hope that she’s able to sit back for a moment this summer and see how far her district has come.


If you’ve long felt that you aren’t able to give all your students the diverse curriculum and learning environments they need, it’s all too easy to feel overwhelmed. But with the right tools and the right people by your side, the task is easier than you think. Contact us anytime to chat about your district, your school, and your classroom.

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