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ODU Researchers Receive Federal Grant to Train Special Ed Teachers

By Brendan O'Hallarn

Hampton Roads is one of only three locations nationwide where Naval personnel who have children with special needs get posted. That's because more support services are available to them here.

For that reason, this region has a higher than average share of the approximately 19,000 students who receive special education services in Virginia. This increased number of students has contributed to the existing statewide shortage of highly qualified personnel to teach and provide support to special education classrooms, particularly in the seven identified low incidence disabilities (LID).

A new grant will help three Old Dominion University researchers train the next generation of special education teachers to reduce that shortage. The five-year, $1.2 million program, financed by the federal Department of Education, is designed to prepare special education teachers to work with students with LIDs through a master of education degree.

The Professional Educator Preparation in Special Education for Children with Low Incidence (PEPSE/CHILI) grant program has been running for one year, and the candidate recruitment results are encouraging.

"We didn't know how many people we would be able to attract," said Peggy Hester, professor of communication disorders and special education and the lead investigator on the grant project. "Our target was 42 students for the entire life of the grant. However, we had 22 in our first cohort, and we now have close to 35 people in the program already."

Co-principal investigators on the project are Jonna Bobzien, associate professor, and Sabra Gear, senior lecturer of communication disorders and special education.

Students with LID encompass nearly 13 percent of the total student population receiving special education and are identified under seven federal IDEA categories: visual impairments, hearing impairments, simultaneous vision and hearing impairments, significant intellectual disabilities, orthopedic impairments, autism and traumatic brain injury.

"We're targeting a unique population of students that are often underserved," Bobzien said. "I teach several of the courses, and the students have provided positive feedback in terms of the instruction they are getting in this program."

The program is poised to grow, as area school divisions that serve LID students "are sending us candidates left and right," Bobzien said.

Hester added that the biggest area of need for educators in Virginia is special education, specifically in the area of low incidence disabilities.

PEPSE/CHILI's curriculum coursework, offered on campus and through Old Dominion's distance learning operation, ODUOnline, includes supervised field-based experiences and teaching internships designed to address the diverse attributes and deficits of students with low-incidence disabilities. The grant provides tuition assistance to full- or part-time qualified candidates for the program who complete the master's degree within the grant funding period.

Bobzien said participants in the program are receiving instruction in the use of evidence-based practices to help prepare them to meet the needs of students with LIDs in public, private, home and hospital school settings.

As a condition of receiving the grant, students must agree to provide two years of special education services for students with LIDs for every academic year in which tuition assistance is received.

For more information about the PEPSE/CHILI program, see the program website.

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