With more children being diagnosed with disabilities and the goal of inclusive classrooms firmly in place, the special education landscape continues to progress.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 1 in every 110 children in the United States is diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Additionally there is a wide range of other diagnosises such as Down Syndrome or cerebral palsy and a host of others ranging from mild to severe physical challenges to minor learning issues to severe cognitive impairment or social and behavioral components.
So how do universities prepare future special education teachers for such diverse classrooms and needs? And how do they prepare them for a field so demanding both physically and emotionally?
Several area colleges are part of a grant program working to overhaul their curriculums to meet these needs.
Associated Colleges of Illinois has given a five-year $500,000 U.S. Department of Education grant to five member institutions including University of St. Francis in Joliet, Lewis University in Romeoville, Dominican University in River Forest and Eureka College, Eureka, Ill. The Transforming Curriculum in Special Education (T-SPED) grant is in its third year.
Srimani Chakravarthi, assistant professor of the College of Education at University of St. Francis, says individually the universities would not have been accepted into the grant program because they don't have enough graduates in their special education departments, but as a collaborative group they were able to secure the funds needed to work toward common goals.
"It's a perfect fit because special education is all about collaboration," Chakravarthi says.
Keeping pace with change
Chakravarthi says the grant was timely for University of St. Francis because the school was in the process of redesigning the special education program.
Illinois' certification for special education teachers changed to include all disabilities in one teaching certificate, where it was previously separated into low needs and high needs certificates. Because they can't extend the amount of time of the degree program, Chakravarthi says they restructured the program for teacher preparation to include all experiences within the courses offered.
Therese Hogan, associate professor of special education at Dominican University, says it would be irresponsible not to continually look at updating the curriculum, but the grant allows faculty to do a more in-depth redesign and content revision.
"We are earnest in our efforts to teach educators to address the ever changing landscape of the classroom and learning needs and all the changes that impact it," she says.
The focus of the grant is to revise the curriculum with shared goals such as improving responses to intervention, building enrichment in math and science and finding field experiences within high needs schools.
Each university works toward the same goals but do it in their own way within their program, Hogan says.
The universities have purchased materials to learn how to assess children's abilities, created new assistive technology courses so teachers will be better prepared for the equipment that will help children in the classroom and they are working with the math and science faculties to better prepare special education teachers in these academic areas.
The grant also provides the resources needed to collaborate with the four other grant partners," says Christy Roberts, chair of special education at Lewis University.
Preparing the future
So how does the grant translate to the college classroom and preparing great special education teachers?
A special education teacher can now be placed in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade classrooms. Additionally they are certified to be a teacher who works with students one-on-one, as well as teach in a self contained classroom for only students with special needs, or teach in a general education classroom that includes special needs students.
One of the keys is to teach special education teachers that their roles are going to change as special education and children's needs change, explains Hogan.
"We set a solid foundation, but teach them that things will not stay static," she says.
Candidates leave the Dominican University special education program understanding they need to be knowledgeable on a range of approaches to education, Hogan says.
"They need to understand no one method will work," she says.
In addition to education, it is important future special education teachers learn how to be advocates for children, Roberts says.
"Instead of teaching an isolated set of skills we are teaching them how to think critically," Roberts says adding they learn to take in what is going on and what needs to go on and advocate for a more inclusive setting.
Liking children isn't a good enough reason to choose special education, Roberts says. People need to go into the field prepared to advocate on behalf of children.
Another goal of the grant is to provide field experience to give context to the lessons and helps future teachers raise good questions to continue learning.
At Dominican students are provided with student teaching opportunities. They also participate in a seminar class that allows them to express the challenges and emotions they experience during the real-life experiences, Hogan says.
In addition, mentoring opportunities are critical during the first year as a professional, she says.
Roberts says special education is such a stressful profession that part of educating candidates to be teachers is offering strategies on how to take care of themselves. Roberts says her classes begin with meditation because of its benefits for mental health as well as physical health.
"You have to be comfortable wearing many hats," Hogan says. "It's a rigorous course of study…once you are out in the field the learning and studying doesn't stop."