UArizona preparing the next generation of special education professionals

A large building sits under a cloudy sky with a rainbow overhead.

The University of Arizona's Department of Disabilities and Psychoeducational Studies was awarded five grants that will allow the College of Education to develop and implement programs and services that address the diverse needs of students with disabilities.

Chris Richards / University Communications

Equity, inclusion and disability justice are the driving forces behind five grants awarded to the University of Arizona's Department of Disabilities and Psychoeducational Studies, in the College of Education, by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs.

The grants, which total about $5 million, will support undergraduate, master's and doctoral scholars during their studies, train early intervention specialists and prepare the next generation of special education leaders to use evidence-based, culturally sustaining practices.

College of Education Dean Robert Q. Berry III said the five grant awards are pivotal in enabling the college to innovate, develop and implement programs and services that address the diverse needs of students with disabilities.

"The advancements made possible through these grants will undoubtedly enhance educational outcomes, foster a sense of inclusivity and promote overall well-being for students with disabilities," Berry said. "I applaud our college's unwavering commitment to improving the educational experience and opportunities towards advancing the field of special education."

The five projects funded are:

  • Systems Change for Inclusive Education, a National Collaborative Effort for Students with Extensive Support Needs, also known as SCIENCE-ESN
  • Preparation of Culturally Sustaining Leaders in Special Education Through Apprenticeship Learning
  • Representation and Diversity in Early Childhood Deaf Education
  • Reading Arizona: An interprofessional personnel training program to train diverse personnel to serve multicultural/multilingual children with disabilities
  • Educational Interpreting Emphasis

Preparing tomorrow's teachers

Two of the projects, SCIENCE-ESN and Preparation of Culturally Sustaining Leaders in Special Education Through Apprenticeship Learning, will prepare the next generation of special education educators with the skills and perspective necessary to enact multilevel, systematic changes across K-12 and higher education as well as state and federal legislation.

SCIENCE-ESN is a collaborative effort between UArizona and the University of Utah and was awarded $2.14 million split between the two institutions. The project will prepare eight doctoral scholars, four at each university, for special education faculty positions across the nation. The UArizona team is lead by principal investigator Kirsten Lansey and co-principal investigator Taucia González, both assistant professors, and associate professor Adai Tefera.

a woman smiles in front of foliage while wearing a blue button down shirt.

Kirsten Lansey

The project will support scholars starting their four-year doctoral programs in August 2024. The eight scholars will complete coursework from both institutions: UArizona will focus on equity, inclusion and social justice, while the University of Utah focuses on positive behavioral support, systems change and implementation science. Over the course of their studies, the scholars will attend seminars held by the two host universities on a variety of topics related to special education: equity and justice; leadership, policy and administration; race, culture and language; and inclusive education for students with extensive support needs.

The scholars will also complete internships in college-level teaching and student supervision, as well as externships with high-need local education agencies and national or state policy organizations or education boards. Lansey said these experiences are intended to prepare scholars for the kinds of challenges they will face over the course of their careers.

In the Tucson area, the project will work with Sunnyside School District to assist in systems change and implementation of inclusive, evidence-based practices.

Lansey hopes the eight scholars supported by SCIENCE-ESN will go on to conduct research on systemic educational change and prepare future teachers – special educators and general education teachers alike – to work together, collaborate and promote the inclusion of all students into general education, particularly those with extensive support needs who are often segregated to separate classrooms or entirely different schools.

"We want to ultimately have diverse scholars whose voices are represented in all aspects of the educational system, because those voices are important and need to be valued," Lansey said.

Lansey, Tefera and González will also collaborate on a second project, Preparation of Culturally Sustaining Leaders in Special Education Through Apprenticeship Learning, which received $1 million and will support four doctoral students at UArizona. Tefera will lead the project alongside co-principal investigators Lansey and González, professor and department head of disabilities and psychoeducational studies Carl Liaupsin, and associate professor Sunggye Hong.

A woman wearing a white turtlenck smiles in front of desert plants.

Adai Tefera

The project, which launches in fall 2024, will recruit multilingual scholars, scholars from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds and scholars with disabilities, and utilize what Tefera calls a "comprehensive apprenticeship learning model" to prepare them for careers at research universities or other academic institutions.

"Our goal is to support four exceptional doctoral students who become faculty that prepare special education teachers to work in culturally, racially and linguistically diverse classrooms in special education," Tefera said. "We are preparing doctoral students to engage in that work, both in research and in preparing future teachers in special education."

In addition to the regular doctoral coursework, the four scholars will shadow a program director within the College of Education and participate in mentorships with faculty and non-UArizona community members whose work aligns with the scholars' individual research and postgraduation interests.

Scholars will also work in local classrooms alongside Sabrina Salmon, Tucson Unified School District senior director of exceptional education, to develop culturally sustaining practices reflecting the needs of diverse students. Tefera said there are also plans to collaborate with other universities, or a policy think tank, to further grow scholars' network and knowledge – and prepare them for career challenges.

Learning to communicate

Reading Arizona will also prepare future special education teachers, as well as speech-language pathologists. The project is run by Mary Alt, professor and department head of speech, language and hearing sciences, in the College of Science, and Jennifer White, associate professor of practice of disabilities and psychoeducational studies. The five-year project received $1.1 million in funding and will train educators to meet the literacy needs of multicultural students with disabilities and improve literacy skills for all children.

According to the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as The Nation's Report Card, only 31% of fourth grade students and 28% of eighth graders in Arizona met or exceeded their reading proficiency level. The need to improve literacy is even greater in special education, Alt said.

"That 31% reading proficiency in Arizona is not being driven by 10% of kids with disabilities, it's part of the larger picture," she said. "As a state, we need to improve the literacy of our children."

Special education teachers and speech-language pathologists work alongside one another, and individually with students and their families, in a variety of ways to improve academic outcomes for students – including literacy.

Reading Arizona will start that collaborative process between educators while they are still in school by launching a cohort comprised of students in the Bachelor of Science in Special Education for Mild to Moderate Disabilities in the College of Education and the Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology in the College of Science. Students selected as fellows for the cohort upon admission to their respective degree programs will participate in additional coursework, educational meetings and group activities over the course of their studies. Events hosted by the cohort will be open to all students and are intended to help future educators meet lifelong collaborators.

A woman smiling.

Mary Alt

"The very nature of the special education classroom is built on a foundation of collaboration that students don't often have the time to work on and practice during a typical college education," White said. "This program also gives students the chance to learn to work as a team. These are not skills that are innate within us. We actually need specific instruction on how to communicate, problem-solve and work in a team. We want to enhance those skills so these students can go into schools and become leaders."

Over the course of their studies, Reading Arizona fellows will be able to apply for cost-of-living stipends, supported by grant funding, to support their work.

The program will also host a literacy camp during the summer, staffed by future students in the cohort, and will provide child-focused literacy activities over the course of several weeks. Alt said plans for the camp are still in the planning stages.

Reading Arizona will enroll the first members of its cohort in fall 2024.

While White and Alt focus on childhood literacy, M. Christina Rivera will work to improve support structures and early childhood intervention for Deaf and hard-of-hearing children and their families. Her project, Representation and Diversity in Early Childhood Deaf Education, was awarded $1.2 million over five years to expand the College of Education's online Special Education-Deaf/Hard of Hearing Master’s Teacher Preparation Program to include an emphasis in early intervention and early childhood.

The "Hearing Impaired" certification in Arizona is a teaching certificate that covers birth to age 21 but the program has historically focused on K-12 education. Rivera said supporting language development in deaf and hard-of-hearing children – especially those from multilingual homes – as early as possible is vitally important.

The first three years of life are particularly critical for language development, Rivera said, and there are many Deaf and hard-of-hearing children who experience those years without access to language. That may be due to families and audiologists waiting for the proper hearing aid, waiting for cochlear implant surgery or waiting for the cochlear implant to be activated. In those cases, children can experience language deprivation because the traditional focus is to develop listening and spoken language skills rather than visual modalities such as American Sign Language, which Rivera said can cause language delays and impact academic progress and social-emotional development.

The project, which includes disabilities and psychoeducational studies lecturer Patricia Smolko, is intended to increase the number of fully credentialed teachers of Deaf and hard-of-hearing children who can provide family-centered early intervention that addresses the needs of Deaf multilingual learners, Native children and their families. The program will also train fully credentialed teachers who can provide individualized programming and language instruction to Deaf and hard-of-hearing children with high-intensity needs in early childhood programs such as preschool.

A woman wearing glasses and a black shirt smilin in front of desert foliage.

M. Christina Rivera

"Our hope is to train teachers who can support families to start using sign language earlier so that DHH children do not experience language deprivation," Rivera said. "If the family chooses to pursue spoken language, sign language can be a bridge to developing their spoken language skills – whether that be English, Spanish or whatever the language of the home is."

The project will support 23 scholars through the teacher preparation program who are themselves multilingual, Deaf or use American Sign Language – including two students already enrolled in the program who expressed interest in early childhood intervention.

Rivera said she hopes nine or 10 of the scholars supported by the project come from Arizona and remain in the state after they graduate, finding employment in early intervention programs, early childhood programs, preschool programs, at Arizona School for the Deaf and the Blind or on general education campuses – wherever the need may be.

Also awarded funding by the Office of Special Education Projects was Educational Interpreting Emphasis. which received $1.2 million over five years. The program, run by associate professor of practice Holly Nelson, will train high-quality educational interpreters in the Deaf Studies Bachelor of Science in Special Education program to work with deaf and hard-of-hearing students beginning in preschool. Over the course of five years, the project will prepare 60 educational interpreters.