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SUNY Cortland Wins Federal Grant to Redesign Special Education Curricula

SUNY Cortland Wins Federal Grant to Redesign Special Education Curricula


The U.S. Department of Education has awarded SUNY Cortland a renewable, cooperative agreement to begin a five-year project to enhance the special education and general education curricula within its School of Education.

The federal government awarded an initial Special Education Pre-service Teacher Program Improvement Grant of $279,027 for 2010-11 on Oct. 1.

This type of cooperative agreement is funded from year to year by congressional appropriation. If the initiative is supported through 2015, the College will receive $1.4 million in federal support.

The school is making the curricular changes with an eye on where elementary education in the U.S. is headed in terms of serving students with special needs.

The School of Education faculty will use the grant to support the work to develop several areas of new curricula. One part of the changes will prepare future general education teachers to accommodate children with special needs in their classes. Another will ready future special education practitioners to incorporate specific content into their classes, for example, mathematics, science or reading. A third area of focus will be developing partnerships for placement of student teachers in schools where they can learn effective teaching strategies alongside experienced special education practitioners.

In both curricular programs, the faculty will design curricula that create better pathways for dual certification options: general education students who obtain certification in special education as well as special education teacher candidates who complete certification in a general education discipline.

John Cottone, interim dean of the School of Education and School of Professional Studies, serves as principal investigator on the grant, with co-principal investigators Kimberly Rombach, assistant professor of childhood/early childhood education; and David Smukler, assistant professor of foundations and social advocacy. Susan Stratton, Childhood/Early Childhood Education Department, and Judith Bentley, Foundations and Social Advocacy Department, will also serve as curriculum specialists on the project.

“It’s timely now for Cortland to take the initiative to think of ways to better prepare our teachers to educate students with disabilities,” asserted Rombach, whose specialty area is in inclusive elementary education from a general educator perspective.

“Children with the label of ‘learning disability’ often end up in general education settings and the teacher does not necessarily feel very well prepared to respond to the needs of those children,” Smukler said. His academic focus brings a special educator perspective to bear on the curricula redesign project.

“We will try to prepare the future general education teachers with strategies to respond to those kids who will increasingly be in their classrooms, and to teach those who are in the special education program how to work better with the general education folks so it’s a more seamless arrangement,” he said.

“We have ideas about how our general education teacher candidates would see themselves, perhaps as having knowledge about general education but who know there is a necessity to teach students with disabilities in a general education setting, too,” Rombach noted.

The benefits for special education majors are clear.

“If the special education pre-service teachers have a better idea of what general education teachers deal with, then they will be better prepared to work in a general education classroom as opposed to off in some little resource room with just ‘their’ kids,” Smukler said. “Our attitude is ‘not yours, not mine, but ours.’”

“This program is unique to Cortland in that we still believe there is a need for special educators to be just that: specialized to teach all students with disabilities,” Rombach said. “Perhaps some special educators will see themselves as having key roles such as leading special education reform initiatives in public school settings.”

The project also aims to better prepare special educators to teach core content, such as mathematics education, when specific subject specialization is not presently prominent in the special education curriculum, Rombach added.

Likewise, the general education scholars will benefit.

“Right now they can get that special education certification but it requires taking many courses after they graduate and going through a long, cumbersome state certification process,” Smukler noted.  

The grant will also help the School of Education forge better partnerships with public schools to place student teachers in settings where they can hone their special education skills.

“I think every teacher preparation program deserves to be improved or enhanced infusing what we call ‘evidence-based’ practices that have been found to be most helpful and most productive for maximizing all students’ learning outcomes,” Rombach said.

As an administrator, Cottone will work to link the two departments working on the project and to open doors and handle paperwork allowing faculty to make the necessary curricular changes.

“My role will be to help enhance our curriculum by infusing special education topics into it where we can,” said Rombach. “Our ultimate goal is to improve our teacher candidates’ abilities to teach children who have ‘high incidence’ disabilities: those disabilities most frequently seen in a general education classroom, including learning disabilities, emotional imbalances and intellectual disability. Those are the most highly observed in a general education setting and in our general population.”

Amy Henderson-Harr and Glen Clarke, assistant vice president and associate director, respectively, of the Research and Sponsored Programs Office, were invaluable in getting this grant, Smukler said. Marley Sweet Barduhn ’76, M.S.Ed. ’79, encouraged Rombach and Smukler to apply for the grant and helped them obtain advice from an earlier grant recipient.

“Kim Rombach and I worked hard on getting this grant in a very short timeframe,” Smukler said. “The government opened the process during the summer and gave 30 days before it was closed. It was quite competitive. I think 26 universities applied and nine were accepted. Five are in New York state and three are SUNY schools.”

The first year will be devoted to planning the changes, Smukler said.