Haring Center

September 15, 2020

Collaborating to Transform Special Education

“When I was a classroom teacher, Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) were the folks I went to the most,” says Carly Roberts, Haring Center researcher and associate professor at the University of Washington College of Education (CoE).

Selma Powell, Haring Center researcher and director of the Special Education Teacher Education Program (SPED-TEP) at the CoE, remarks that special education teachers need to be able to communicate and collaborate effectively with related personnel like SLPs.

This month, UW’s SPED-TEP and Department of Speech & Hearing Sciences (SPHSC) welcome the first cohort of scholars into a master’s training program that will promote collaborative learning between the two disciplines.

Scholars in the Collaboration Across Special Education (CASE) program will receive one year of tuition assistance and annual stipend from the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) under the US Department of Education. Over the next four academic years, 48 total scholars will participate in the CASE program’s training experience—six each per year from the SPED-TEP and SPHSC.

“The CASE program is a collaborative training program with a particular emphasis on universal design for learning, assistive and instructional technology and equity and inclusion,” says Roberts.

“Communication is so essential to ensuring students are heard and able to fully participate in meaningful ways in their learning and classrooms,” she continues. “This collaboration really is a natural fit.”

Competencies developed during the first year of the respective degree programs will position scholars to better serve children with high-intensity needs, who OSEP defines as children who have a complex array of disabilities (e.g. multiple disabilities, intellectual disability) and therefore require intensive, individualized interventions.

Each cohort of scholars will attend a year-long seminar together. They will also take two additional interdisciplinary courses, during which they will have the opportunity to collaborate both within their cohort and among other students studying special education.

Another component of the CASE program is community learning. “Scholars will attend social justice-focused speeches or activities, and we’ll use the seminar as an opportunity to draw the connections to their own work and understanding of special education,” says Powell.

Scholars earning their Master of Science in SLP will fulfill a two-year service obligation following graduation, during which they will work in public schools.

“Now more than ever, there is a need for well-trained and highly qualified SLPs entering the field to serve in public schools,” says Sara Kover, SPHSC assistant professor, who co-directs the CASE program alongside Roberts and Powell.

On the SPED-TEP side, the CASE program is a collaboration with Seattle Public Schools (SPS). Annually, the six CASE scholars will be paraprofessionals currently working in SPS. This opportunity is a pathway for SPS to grow their own teachers by identifying classified staff to become certified teachers committed to working in SPS, explains Powell.

According to Roberts, students with high-intensity needs often use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC).

“This has been an area of our special education program that we’ve wanted to build for a long time,” Roberts explains. “Having such direct access to the SLP faculty and students will immediately benefit our students in SPED-TEP. For example, they’ll be able to ask a peer about an app that promotes communication right in the moment.”

A portion of the grant from OSEP is allocated for purchasing and accessing AAC technology for SPED-TEP students to practice alongside SLP students.

“This is an opportunity for us to truly be learners alongside SLP students, as we explore these technologies together—and in return prepare scholars for implementation in schools,” says Powell. “These are things we’ve previously tabled due to resource constraints.”

Roberts expounds on the longer-term intended outcomes of the CASE program.

“A big focus for us is acknowledging the ways special education in public schools needs to change,” she says. “We want to shift the practices we see in schools by training professionals who can go out and push back on problematic systems in their own school buildings.”

“Transforming oppressive systems in schools is not going to be achieved by one group,” continues Roberts. “It will take interdisciplinary collaboration, lots of different perspectives and lived experiences, and so we see this as an opportunity to try to model this in our pre-service program.”

Faculty from SPED-TEP and SPHSC look forward to continued collaboration. They plan to include each cohort of SLP CASE scholars in SPED-TEP courses beyond the length of the grant.

“In addition to the students, this is a great opportunity for faculty to work across disciplines and learn from each other,” adds Powell.

Kover concurs, “We look forward to watching collaborations grow between the students—and we, as faculty and as a program, look forward to building on this collaboration with the CoE over the coming years.

Roberts says that through this program they hope to support as many students as possible—both at the UW and the future young learners graduates will serve throughout their careers.

“We’re preparing educators to be collaborative and center equity,” she says. “Educators who will be ready to work in schools with a critical lens on special education, and a strengths-based view on students and families.”