General education teachers must play an ever-increasing role in educating children with special needs because of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires such students to be educated with their peers to the “maximum extent possible.”

Lou Anne Worthington and Renitta Goldman, right, are the investigators on a four-year, $800,000 grant that will train teachers to instruct children with mild to moderate disabilities.

UAB’s Evidence-Based Special Education Preparation Program (ESEPP) will train teachers to instruct children with mild to moderate disabilities who also have problems reading and share these skills with fellow faculty. The program is funded by a four-year, $800,000 federal grant.

Renitta Goldman, Ph.D., professor of education and principal investigator on the grant, says this is a golden opportunity to aid teachers and students in the greater Birmingham area.

“There are shortages of special education teachers, and this is a very large problem,” Goldman says. “The goal of ESEPP is to alleviate the shortages, particularly in schools that serve African-American and Hispanic students.”

Some 35 teachers will participate, and those who complete ESEPP training will earn a master’s degree in special education with an emphasis on literacy and educational administration.

“We also have a focus on diversity and the issues that surround that,” Goldman says. “These skills will make them better able to teach children from diverse populations.”

Training needed
According to a report from the Study of Personnel Needs in Special Education, three-fourths of the students receiving special education services spend 40 percent or more of their day in general education classrooms. Consequently, 96 percent of general education teachers teach, or have taught, children with special needs.

The same study indicates general educators have, on average, 3.5 special education students assigned to their caseload. Most general educators (87 percent) felt successful in teaching most students with disabilities, giving their efforts a success rate of moderate to great extent; however, their confidence was tied to their relationship with special education teachers.

Many of these responding teachers completed their professional preparation at a time when few students with disabilities were taught in general education classes. This was true even among those instructors who had been teaching for no more than six years. Fewer than one-third of those instructors said they received any pre-service preparation for collaborating with special education teachers.

Some general educators reported they were able to acquire some skills through in-service programs, and those professional development hours were associated significantly with their perceived success. A goal of ESEPP is continuing the good experiences beyond the end of the grant.

“Information about skills and strategies will be disseminated to other teachers at national, state and local levels using materials that were developed in this training program,” Goldman says.  

Teachers excited
Educators certainly are excited. Goldman says that her office has received more than 100 inquiries and applications for the 35 available training spots.

The participants will be divided into two groups. The first group of 18 will begin training this fall, and the second group of 17 will begin next summer. “The expectation is that the first group can offer some mentoring to the second group,” Goldman says.

Most of the participating teachers have general education degrees and represent a cross-section of teachers in both background and geographical location.

“They are coming from the Birmingham area and beyond,” Goldman says.

The majority of the grant funds will defray tuition costs and book fees. The goal is to keep out-of-pocket costs to a minimum.

An educator of young children with special needs can make a positive difference in the lives of those children and their families, Goldman says. The training program will help make that kind of difference, and these teachers will share these skills with other general education instructors.

The program will generate many quality improvements, Goldman says. ESEPP graduates will possess greater competencies enabling them to be valued and retained by employers for a long period of time.

Graduates will have expanded employment options, particularly in the area of reading and leadership within school systems (e.g., administrators in special education and/or reading), and the follow-up evaluation extends several years to ensure satisfaction. Graduates also will encourage mentorship of previous students and engage in cooperative recruitment activities for the profession.

“The anticipated impacts of ESEPP are manifold,” Goldman says.