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Students in a postsecondary teacher education program work toward dual certification in special education and a subject-level or grade-level range. Credit: Jackie Mader

When there aren’t enough teachers trained to teach students with disabilities, we fail the vulnerable students who most need educators’ help.

We must help teachers get the training they need to be able to teach all of their students, including students with disabilities.

I witnessed this need firsthand during my 20-year tenure as Maryland’s state superintendent of schools. And I knew before I retired from government service that I wanted to devote the next chapter of my life to this issue. The Kennedy Krieger Institute was already engaged in a similar pursuit. Joining forces, we established the Center for Innovation and Leadership in Special Education.

Related: Willing, able and forgotten

For the past five years, the center has offered fellowships to teachers who join us from across the country. During their year with us, fellows study the neuroscience of learning and the learner; the principles of behavior change; and educational law, administrative leadership and effective resource appropriation. Fellows are also prepared to develop, acquire, translate and use scientific evidence to design and implement high-quality lesson plans that will benefit students of all abilities.

“We must help teachers get the training they need to be able to teach all of their students, including students with disabilities.”

All of the program’s faculty members have experience working in the broad fields of neuro-developmental disabilities and education. Each one holds an academic appointment at The Johns Hopkins University, in its School of Medicine, Bloomberg School of Public Health or School of Education. Fellowship graduates are consistently in demand by school systems in Maryland and beyond.

One of the things that makes this program so effective is that each of its fellows completes two separate internships, both of which emphasize leadership in special education. Fellows often go on to assume key leadership roles in public and private schools.

One fellow is working as far away as Hawaii, while another is in constant demand as a speaker in multiple states, advising school systems on everything from behavioral interventions and universal design for learning to classroom organization and successful academic presentation skills.

This means we have a multiplier effect. Our graduates go on to provide instruction and advice to potentially hundreds of teachers, who are then prepared to support, collectively, thousands of students with disabilities. As the years go by, we hope to have a tremendous impact on teaching and learning across the country. This success would not be possible without Kennedy Krieger’s extraordinary faculty members, and their collective dedication and contributions to the program.

Recently, based on demand for the program and the need to scale it up to accommodate larger numbers of teachers who cannot study with us for an entire year, we developed a second learning model that, once implemented, will include both face-to-face time with Kennedy Krieger faculty and online learning opportunities. Fellows completing this model will receive a certificate of completion from an affiliated institution of higher education.

Related: The ‘forgotten’ part of special education that could lead to better outcomes for students

This second model will allow the center to expand its geographic reach and increase the number of educators with whom it works directly. We hope it will benefit not only teachers but also educators in leadership positions, such as special education department chairs.

The depth and quality of this model’s coursework will be the same as that of the first. As in that model, fellows will collaborate with researchers and with one another in manuscript and grant preparation, in school consultations, in research opportunities, and in preparing and giving presentations at regional and national meetings.

Collectively, our graduates will have an incredible effect on thousands of children with disabilities — both in the classroom and throughout their lives — because all of them will have an equal chance at succeeding in school.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Nancy Grasmick is the co-director of the Center for Innovation and Leadership in Special Education at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, an internationally renowned organization in Baltimore that provides medical, therapeutic and educational services to children with disabilities. She is also incoming chairwoman of Kennedy Krieger’s board of directors.

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  1. This sounds like a wonderful program, but my fear is that a teacher is only as effective as the administrator of the school. As an advocate for disabled these last 20 years, I’ve seen good teachers unable to help students properly due to administrative rigidity and interference due to budget concerns (which violates IDEA, but doesn’t bother most as they understand that families aren’t usually trained regarding their rights and responsibilities).

    If teachers aren’t supported to provide what’s needed for these students, this program will have difficulty spreading with any real outcome if just among teachers. It would be more helpful if a component regarding administrative responsibility towards IDEA and following proper procedures were included as well. They are the gatekeepers of service, no matter what the law states about an IEP “team”. I’ve seen more abuse and control in meetings due to administrative refusal to agree with services.

    Charters, especially seem to have an agenda regarding budget concerns over student needs. I’m currently having difficulty with one now trying to get formal assessments for a 3- year IEP as the system hasn’t done any since the student’s first diagnosis 6 years ago. Assumptions of academic success does not mean a child no longer needs additional supports, but that seems to be the game strategy in this case.

    I’ve worked with many wonderful, dedicated teachers who are hamstrung by administrators more concerned about the bottom line than what a student truly needs.

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