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$3 million grant boosts special education efforts


October 22, 2007

ASU’s College of Teacher Education and Leadership has received a $3.19 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the largest single award realized by the college’s department of special education.

The grant, which provides funding for the Arizona Special Initiative to Recruit and Retain Educators (Project ASPIRE), will be used by the college to recruit and retain mid-career professionals and recent college graduates as special education teachers in high-poverty and remote school districts across the state.

Project ASPIRE combines the activities and expertise of two highly acclaimed programs in the college – the Master’s and Arizona Certification (MAC) and the Professional Development School Teaching Excellence Network through Educational Technology (PDS-TENET) – and expands the existing partnerships between ASU and six high-need school districts.

Funds from the grant will be used to prepare and place 145 new special education teachers over five years of project activity in the Osborn Elementary and Avondale Elementary districts in the greater Phoenix area, as well as four remote rural districts: Chinle Unified in the Navajo Nation, Indian Oasis-Baboquivari Unified in the Tohono O’odham Nation, Gadsden Elementary in the southeastern corner of Arizona and Douglas Unified in the southwestern corner of the state.

“The Project ASPIRE partnership gives us the opportunity to produce even more effective special education teachers,” says Kathleen Puckett, an associate professor of special education at ASU’s West campus. “The partnership will offer initial teacher preparation that results in the application of the appropriate skills, as well as critical continued support in a professional development environment.

“Teacher training programs by themselves cannot provide special education teachers with the necessary preparation and support. Effective special education training must include partnerships with school districts that embrace professional development of the beginner, the novice, and the seasoned professional educator.”

College administrators initially will begin a search in the six partner districts to identify residents who are interested in becoming teachers and working with students in the local schools who have disabilities. Faculty will offer a master’s-level teacher training program in special education at community locations and deliver the program via a combination of video conferencing and on-site teacher mentoring.

“To put the importance of this grant into perspective, consider this: If high-need Arizona school districts seek high-quality teachers – and they surely do – then they are absolutely desperate for high-quality special education teachers,” says Scott Ridely, the college’s assistant dean.

“This grant provides our PDS partnership with another tool to level the playing field in this state for providing quality teachers in high-need urban and rural communities.”

Participants will have the opportunity to earn Arizona Teacher Certification, as well as a master’s degree in education in three semesters without leaving their communities. Participants must possess a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university and agree to teach in a high-need school for a period of three years.

Twenty applicants will be selected in each of the first two years of the program, with an increase to 35 in years three through five.

“Arizona has experienced a 15 percent growth in population since 2000,” says Puckett, who received her doctorate in education from the University of Tennessee. “The growth is unevenly distributed; 4 million live in the Phoenix and Tucson population centers, while nearly 2 million are spread across more rural and remote regions of our state.

“More and more teachers are needed every year, and finding qualified teachers is especially problematic in high-need urban and remote school districts. We know that 12 percent of the special education teachers in this state are not fully licensed. Children from high-poverty districts are most affected by this statistic. We believe Project ASPIRE gives us a greater opportunity to truly impact special-needs students and their teachers.”

Project ASPIRE is funded through the Department of Education’s Transition to Teaching, a program providing five-year grants to state and local educational agencies, or for-profit organizations, nonprofit organizations or institutions of higher education collaborating with state or local educational agencies.

Puckett, who joined fellow college associate professor Ridley as principal investigator in the grant, notes that the ASU program will focus on the three areas that lead to great special education teachers.

“A great special education teacher has a strong pre-teaching preparation, an attitude of success, and has the good fortune to work in a supportive school environment,” she says. “Project ASPIRE aims to provide all three of these important areas: providing a high-quality training program, nurturing successful attitudinal factors, and placing our teachers in supportive, caring and mentored school environments.”