WILLMAR -- Not that long ago, a device to help hearing-impaired people communicate could cost $12,000 or more.
Now, a $500 Apple iPad tablet computer with a 99-cent application can do much the same thing.
An app on a school-owned iPad helped Willmar Senior High sophomore Juan Carranza work with another student to deliver a report and PowerPoint presentation in health class this past school year.
Carranza has a serious hearing loss, and the other student is profoundly deaf.
It's one of special education teacher Amber Johannes's favorite examples of what the iPads can do for her students.
Beginning in September, juniors and seniors at Willmar Senior High will be issued individual iPads. If a community fundraising drive is successful, the school district hopes to provide individual iPads to sophomores and freshmen in a year.
When students have individual iPads, Johannes said, she expects to see more doors open for them.
"It's been a huge change for the kids," Johannes said. "They can participate more actively in class. ... It's just cool; it gives me shivers."
In Johannes' classroom a week ago, Hali Bogle, a freshman, listened to Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" on an iPad and followed along.
Hali demonstrated how she could easily find photos and videos to enhance a student's understanding of the play.
In the past, the department used audiobooks on CD, Johannes said, but they got scratched, broken and lost, and replacements could be expensive. "Now they're on iPads," she said.
Speech pathologist Lyndsey Paffrath-Bice uses an iPad app on hers to show students how the mouth and tongue work together to make different sounds. When they have their individual tablets, she said, they will be able to communicate better with their teachers and with other kids.
Students are excited about the possibilities, too, she said. They keep asking her, "Are they really going to do that?"
Because everyone will have a school email account next year, she added, it should help special education teachers communicate better with students and classroom teachers. For students who leave class during the day for speech therapy, she said, she can send them a message telling them what time she's expecting them. "It makes them more accountable."
Juan said he is looking forward to having an iPad to use all the time next year as a junior.
"I liked it," Juan said of his presentation. He speaks, but his verbal skills are affected by his hearing loss. With the iPad, he can type what he wants to say, and the tablet will speak for him.
Because English and American Sign Language are different languages, some meaning can be lost in translation, said interpreter Mandi Norby. With an iPad, "he can pick out the exact word he wants to use."
Health teacher Chad Akerson said the report was a first-time experience for his entire class.
"It was two hearing-impaired students that had to get up and give a presentation; it was their words but a computer voice," he said. "They did a great job, and the kids were respectful."
An interpreter stepped in to assist during a question-and-answer session after the presentation.
Akerson said he thought Juan and his partner were confident and comfortable during the presentation. Since then, Akerson has continued using an iPad in the classroom. It's been particularly useful for learning to pronounce unfamiliar terms.
Johannes said the speaking app is available free, but comes only with a female voice. "We decided it was important for him to give the report in a boy voice," she said, so the school purchased the 99-cent version with voices for both genders.
Paffrath-Bice was pleased, too, with the health class report. Juan has not been that comfortable in front of groups before, she said, but "he had a sense of pride that he could do this."