BOTHELL, Wash. – There’s a special education problem in Washington state, and Megan Itani (’02 B.A.) is trying to help fix it. She’s a student in a cohort-based special education leadership program, still in its infancy.
The problem is a lack of training and expertise. On one hand, there are well-trained, well-meaning K-12 school administrators who are expected to oversee special education, yet oftentimes only have a passing knowledge on the subject. On the other hand, there are special education experts – usually teachers – who lack administrative proficiency.
“Right now, special education is mostly just an add-on to what an administrator’s interests might be,” Itani said. “This program is really trying to build capacity for people who have special education as their main focus, and help them become leaders.”
The program is called Enhancing Capacity for Special Education Leaders (ECSEL). It’s a joint program, between Washington State University and the University of Washington Bothell campus.
And here’s the kicker: Enrollment for all students in the program – including Itani who works in the Pullman School District and is a diehard Coug – is through the UW.
“I tell people that I am not a Husky, I just happen to be a student now at the University of Washington,” she jokes. “I’ll never be on the UW campus without some sort of attire that identifies my true self as a Coug.”
The rivalry talk is all in jest. In reality all Huskies, Cougs, and supporters of other universities come together because, bottom line, they all want to support kids with disabilities.
“I started in special education because I knew individuals with disabilities, and I knew what that holistic picture of their lives was, and I realized I could have an impact on their lives,” Itani said. “Through my profession, I realize I’d love to be a special education leader and increase that influence.”
The group kicked off this year’s program with a three-day retreat on the Bothell campus July 25-27.
Difficulties in special education leadership
Washington is one of 23 states that does not require a separate credential for special education administrators (Boscardin, Weir, and Kusek, 2010). General “program administrator” certification is sufficient qualification for local special education leadership positions in the state, even though that certification doesn’t require either experience or coursework in special education.
Not surprisingly, serious concerns are frequently and widely expressed about the abilities of newly appointed special education directors to meet even the most basic financial, reporting, and legal responsibilities of their positions.
“There’s an awful lot that someone with generalist skills can do, but there’s no real substitute for an expert-level knowledge of the services you need to provide” said project co-lead Tom Bellamy, a UW education professor and director of the Goodlad Institute for Educational Renewal. “I think it really helps for a special education director to have been a special education teacher, or a school psychologist or therapist, or have worked in other positions that serve children with disabilities.”
Washington is made up of 295 school districts. In order for special education administration to occur, 82 of these districts are divided up and lumped in five special education cooperatives administered by Education Service Districts (ESDs). There has been a noticeable need for special education directors, and there has been a noticeably high turnover rate in these positions.
Due to a lack of recent and sufficiently informative data, however, the ECSEL heads, led by Bellamy and WSU special education professor Darcy Miller (http://education.wsu.edu/directory/faculty/millerd), set out to improve data-driven assessment. On WSU’s side, Miller was also helped by June Canty and Michael Dunn.
The data show approximately 20 new directors will be needed annually over the next few years, while about 15-20 (7-10 percent) of the total number of positions across the state will need to be filled every year.
The consequences of having an inadequate preparation system in the state became abundantly clear in the second assessment stage, conducted with 128 school administrators (47 special education administrators, 36 principals, eight superintendents, 14 state special education staff, and nine ESD special education directors). Of the striking needs in school districts, five of the seven top-rated priorities of the group included fundamental special education program requirements; requirements that are often not being consistently met. This includes managing special education finances, legal issues, basic Individualized Education Program requirements, and communication skills for working with diverse groups.
“The fact is, every district in the state is trying to increase the number of students who are proficient in their learning,” Bellamy said. “And a lot of that increase will come from students with disabilities. So we need these well-developed, specialized services in the district to help that increase occur.”
Working together to solve a problem
While the need for more education leadership was apparent, no one university was in a position to service the need.
“The collaboration between the University of Washington and Washington State University was actually pretty natural,” Bellamy said. “There has been a need, but it wasn’t large enough to create an entire program on any one campus. So, instead, we came together to have professors across various campuses, and students from across the state.”
Miller said it was a natural collaboration to have WSU involved, because of its prominent and historical role in training state administrators.
“There can’t be a special education administration program in this state without Washington State University being involved,” she said.
It’s a two-year program. The first year focuses on leadership at the school level, while the second year shifts focus to the district level. Both years operate with a blend of online and face-to-face interaction.
The curriculum varies, with Miller teaching a seminar on student services, such as how to have a good referral system.
Program now fully funded
Ten students were in the initial cohort in 2012-2013, which was partially funded by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
This time around, however, there was a funding boost, by the U.S. Department of Education, which will give scholarships for up to 18 students. The scholarship covers about 90 percent of the two-year program costs, with students left to cover about $1,500 per year.
“There’s no special education director preparation programs in state and that’s probably why this grant got funded,” Miller said, adding that about 50 people applied for the program, with 18 receiving admission.
The total amount of the five-year grant awarded to the program from the Education Department is $1.25 million dollars.
Graduates of the program earn a Master of Education degree in Educational Leadership, and earn a certificate that cites a specialization in Special Education. Graduates are encouraged to continue in WSU’s statewide Doctor of Education (Ed.D) program in Educational Leadership.
Bellamy said there is some opportunity to grow the program, but right now, the goal is simply to have well-qualified administrators for each of the special education director positions that are available.
“Honestly, that’s not a huge number, which is, again, one reason we’ve combined forces,” he said. “We think we’re the right size right now. But if that turns out to not be true, the program can adapt.”
Additional information is available online at http://education.wsu.edu/edleadership/specialeducation/index.html.
Darcy Miller , WSU Dept. of Teaching and Learning, 509-335-4570, firstname.lastname@example.org