LAWRENCE — An innovative program to help working and future teachers learn research-based strategies and methods to improve inclusion for students with low-incidence disabilities is nearing graduation for its first cohort of students, but teachers are already putting what they’ve learned to work in schools. The special educators in the University of Kansas’ Strengthening Outcomes for All Students in Regular Settings program have begun supporting students with disabilities more in general education classroom, some for the first time, thereby reducing educational segregation while supporting their fellow teachers.
KU’s No. 1 nationally ranked Department of Special Education landed a five-year, $1.25 million grant from the Office of Special Education Programs in 2016 to launch the program, known as KU SOARS. The first cohort includes both teachers already working in schools and future special educators. Co-principal investigators Jennifer Kurth and Mary Morningstar, assistant and associate professors of special education at KU, said the program has immediately taken proven methods into schools, not waiting on a future date.
“One of the persistent problems in education has been this research-to-practice gap, and so the fact scholars are implementing what they are learning immediately is really exciting,” Kurth said. “We scaffold our courses and supports to help our scholars implement skills as they learn them. Our scholars work in their own schools, as possible, and by completing these two years of practicum experiences, with guidance and mentoring from ourselves and doctoral students, really aim to help students take the first steps, and then the next steps, in implementing what we know to be current best practice.”
Teachers working with students with a range of low-incidence disabilities such as intellectual disability, multiple disabilities and autism learn strategies, receive funding to attend national education conferences and get mentoring from peers and KU faculty. The university has long been a leader in research showing that when students with disabilities are included in general education instead of being segregated into special education classes, performance for all students increases.
Brianna Kitchings, an elementary resource teacher for grades K-5 in a Shawnee school, said the course structure and ability to apply lessons immediately has enabled her to include students who were being separated in general education courses for 90 percent of the school day.
“I have students who are now able to be successful in the classroom the majority of the day. And I’ve seen more independence from them,” Kitchings said. “I feel like I’m taking something away from class and going to work the next day and applying it.”
The program will ultimately provide funding for 42 teachers to advocate for systems changes, implement inclusive instruction and receive mentoring from experts at KU and universities across the country as part of a summer session covering a range of topics. The teachers boost their skills while gaining an endorsement in low-incidence special education or a master’s degree.
Danny Ruegsegger, an elementary life skills coach for the Gardner school system, said the program has had a range of benefits, including challenging notions of why students with disabilities have been segregated and helping all students look at inclusion as a normal, sensible approach.
“I feel there’s an injustice happening in education in our country, that we don’t even realize is happening,” Ruegsegger said. “I can’t help but see it now, and it’s helped open conversations with other teachers and identify what we’ve allowed to happen and why. I want to promote as much independence and self-determination as I can. I want all kids to learn that they can raise their hand and know they can ask for help and not be dependent, and for students to think it’s different when any of their classmates aren’t in the same room.”
The program also requires scholars to work with their school administrators to ensure support to make systemwide changes, and to work with their fellow teachers to adapt curriculum to include students who weren’t previously part of the classroom at all times. That collaboration has paid immediate dividends, not only in collaboration, but changing the way schools operate and in students’ everyday lives.
“Some scholars have rewritten Individualized Education Program goals and services to raise expectations and increase time and supports for inclusive general education instruction. Other scholars have changed student schedules to reflect more inclusive opportunities. Some have really focused on building capacity, through things like collaboration, co-teaching and supporting paraprofessionals,” Kurth said. “A few have already been really radical in eliminating separate programs altogether. Many of these students have never been seen as members of their general education schools or communities, and some have never attended general education classes at all. The work of their teachers — KU SOARS scholars — is very literally opening new doors and opportunities for them.”
That has been the experience of Emma Bastarache, a special education teacher for grades 9-12 in North Kansas City, Missouri, schools.
“Some of my kids had never been in a general education classroom before,” she said. “This program has helped me change that and changed the way I look at special education, and it’s helped me learn how to better collaborate with other teachers and be a better educator all around.”