USC Upstate News

Special Education Grant To Alleviate Critical Training Needs Of The Learning Disabilities Field

06- 08- 2009

Spartanburg, S.C. - The Learning Disability Program at the University of South Carolina Upstate recently received a $499,861 Special Education Pre-Service Training Improvement Grant from the Office of Special Education Programs. The award is titled University of South Carolina Upstate: Preparing Highly Qualified Learning Disability Teachers to Close Student Achievement Gaps in Core Content Areas.

“The USC Upstate School of Education is indeed fortunate to receive this grant and it will greatly benefit our bachelor’s of science program in learning disabilities,” said Dr. Charles Love, dean of the School of Education. “The special education certification category represents the greatest teacher shortage in our tri-state region (Georgia, South and North Carolina). This project will achieve four key goals, each alleviating critical training needs of the learning disabilities field.”

USC Upstate offers a degree in Special Education--Learning Disabilities that prepares students to be specialists in the creation and implementation of strategies to accommodate the needs of special education students identified with specific learning disabilities in PK - 12 classrooms. Preparation emphasizes appropriate services, curricula, assessment, and instruction required by students with special needs to support their participation in the general education curriculum. Applications of assistive and instructional technology permeate the program and collaborative skills, assessment procedures, applications of research, and parent consultation skills are specific topics threaded throughout.

Each year the Special Education--Learning Disabilities program graduates 12 students. Currently 35 students have been accepted into the learning disabilities program.

According to Dr. Thomas White, superintendent of Spartanburg County School District 7, districts are struggling to find qualified special education teachers as there is a serious shortage in South Carolina and across the nation. “Here in the Upstate, we rely heavily on the graduates from USC Upstate and we just wish there were more of them. We are excited that USC Upstate is looking at ways to provide opportunities for more teacher candidates in special education and even better pre-service preparation for them.”

The Special Education Pre-Service Training Improvement Grant was awarded to accomplish four key goals over the next five years. Those goals include: 1) increasing the recruitment of candidates from underrepresented groups, including African-Americans, Hispanics, and individuals with disabilities, in order to supply greater diversification in the special education workforce; 2) restructuring the Learning Disability Program to include a) training in the content areas defined under the Highly Qualified certification requirements (i.e., Reading, Mathematics, Social Studies, and Science) and b) culturally responsive practices to better prepare candidates to close well-documented achievement gaps; 3) providing a Mentorship program for Learning Disability candidates and Learning Disability induction teachers (first three years teaching) to bridge pre- and initial teaching experiences; and 4) creating and implementing an improved Teacher Work Samples (TWS) Response to Intervention (RTI) field-based assessment system in multiple settings.

“The shortage of teachers is well-documented and the supply of special educators from diverse backgrounds is low,” said Dr. Holly Pae, associate professor of education and principal investigator of the grant. “This Project will develop and implement a recruitment system to attract students from underrepresented groups. This system will be developed in collaboration with University personnel and consultants based on analysis of existing recruitment practices found successful. Not only will candidates represent the cultural and racial demographics of the schools’ communities, but these future teachers will be Highly Qualified (HQ) to meet the needs of diverse public school classrooms as well.”

White is also thankful for the emphasis that this grant places on recruiting teachers from diverse backgrounds. “As a school district with a population that is approximately 58% African American, 4% Hispanic, and 3% Southeast Asian, we are extremely interested in teachers who are able to implement a culturally responsive curriculum and who are well-prepared to work in schools with large minority populations. Currently, most of the special education teachers we have hired who are African American have come from USC Upstate. We would definitely like to see USC Upstate be able to expand this pool of teacher candidates in addition to increasing the number of males and ethnic minorities beyond African American.”

A mentorship program is also being provided for Learning Disability candidates and Learning Disability induction teachers (first three years teaching) to bridge pre- and initial teaching experiences since special educators represent a group of teachers with the highest attrition rates. The Project’s mentoring components, in tandem with a curriculum infused with culturally responsive practices, will provide additional supports to make candidates less likely to leave the profession. Induction teachers will receive training tailored to their needs, so they too will remain in the field.

According to Pae, the creation and implantation of an improved Teacher Work Samples (TWS) Response to Intervention (RTI) field-based assessment system in multiple settings is needed because teachers are held more accountable for demonstrating their impact on student learning. Low student performance in high poverty schools further warrants a need for a systematic assessment of teacher effectiveness. Through supervised field experiences in schools with diverse demographics (i.e., low performance and social-economic status, racial minority, and limited English proficiency), the proposed LD Program will train candidates to apply prescribed TWS/RTI practices. This assessment system will identify and validate the instructional approaches found most successful in closing the achievement gaps between student groups.

“In conjunction with the utilization of resources of the University, the community, and schools, this project will benefit the graduates and the students they serve as well as continue to impact future teacher candidates trained well after the grant’s five-year funding period,” said Love.

For more details, contact Dr. Holly Pae, associate professor of education at USC Upstate, at (864) 503-5556 or hpae@uscupstate.edu.