August 30, 2007

SIUC helps schools 'grow their own' special ed teachers

by K.C. Jaehnig


CARBONDALE, Ill. — Faced with a growing number of students needing special education and a dearth of teachers to provide it, a group of community and education representatives have banded together to "grow their own" in deep, downstate Illinois.

"This project will develop a cadre of highly qualified special educators from paraprofessionals, teachers' aides, parents and community members currently living in Alexander, Johnson, Massac, Pulaski and Union counties," said Regina M. Foley, professor of special education in the Department of Educational Psychology and Special Education at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, which is one of the project partners.

"Twenty-nine students have applied for admission to the Grow Your Own Teacher Program. We expect 15 or 16 of them to be eligible to begin their studies (under SIUC faculty) in the spring. The remainder of accepted participants will finish requirements at Shawnee Community College before transferring to the SIUC component, which we will be delivering at sites locally— taking the program to them.

"They can go at their own pace if they don't want to go full time. Because many of these folks have full-time jobs, we will also be working with local school superintendents regarding the practicum teaching so that it doesn't have to be done in the daytime."

The downstate project is part of Grow Your Own Illinois, created by legislative action in 2004. The initiative aims to prepare 1,000 special ed teachers by 2016. Eight of the 16 Grow Your Own partnerships operate in the Chicago area, with the rest in low-income, high-need areas around the state. The project including SIUC is the first in this region. Money to support it comes from the state Board of Education through the Federation of Community United Services of Southern Illinois.

"Our part of the state is experiencing a shortage of special educators — districts in the five participating counties have a larger percentage of special education students than the state average," Foley said.

"There are data that suggest that most teachers end up teaching relatively close to the high school they graduated from, so the idea is to take people who already live in these communities, who are interested in teaching but may lack the training or certification they need and provide the education that will enable them to become certified special educators with bachelor's degrees.

"This is not a shortened program. It's not an alternative route. It will be the same program with the same requirements that we offer on campus aimed at those who do not have the resources or support to access a campus program."

Loans will cover student tuition, and graduates who teach in high-need schools for at least five years can cancel as much as $25,000 of student debt, Foley said.

"But the program offers more than tuition," she noted.

"There are developmental services for those who need to brush up on their reading and writing skills, assistance with child care and transportation, and technology support."

Foley described the program as one in which everyone — not just the teachers-to-be — wins.

"It's an opportunity for us to serve the region, an opportunity for students with special needs to have access to qualified teachers, and an opportunity for administrators to have some choices when it comes to hiring," she said.