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UMaine Grant to Help Address Shortage of Special Ed Teachers

Contact: Lu Zeph, (207) 581-1207; Sandra Horne, (207) 581-1236

ORONO – The University of Maine has received $1.2 million in grant funding to begin preparing more and better-qualified early intervention special education teachers to serve increasing numbers of children with disabilities in Maine.

The four-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs is enabling the UMaine Center for Community Inclusion and Disability Studies (CCIDS) and the College of Education and Human Development to collaborate in offering a Master’s in Special Education degree with a specialization in early intervention. It includes a new fifth-year advanced degree option that begins with graduate courses in a student’s fourth undergraduate year and includes two summers and a fifth year of graduate study.

Within four years, up to 20 students now in college will enter school systems, childcare centers, Head Start programs and other facilities that work with children from birth to age five. They’ll have had experience with diverse learners and new coursework to better prepare them for the growing population of special needs students. In addition, 20 specialists or teachers already working in the field will be able to pursue an advanced degree online from anywhere in or out of the state, according to Lu Zeph, director of the CCIDS and principal investigator for the grant.

The new fifth-year master’s option is designed to “accelerate the trajectory and get highly qualified educators out there faster,” Zeph says. “It also ensures that when students do internships or practicum, they’re doing them in settings that include children with disabilities. This gives them that experience at the undergraduate level.”

Mary Elin Logue, associate professor of early childhood education and a co-investigator who will help provide future teachers for the CCIDS courses, says most teachers would benefit from more coursework to~prepare them to work more effectively with young children with diverse learning needs. “It’s our goal that our students will have the ability to work with all children, including children with disabilities,” she says.

The Early Childhood Opportunities (EChO) Scholars project will provide tuition scholarships for students selected through a competitive process, and addresses a serious shortage of credentialed early intervention teachers in Maine. UMaine students now in early childhood education can begin applying this month and will begin the program in the 2011 spring semester. Recruitment for practicing professionals will begin in early 2011.

“There is a great need both nationally and in Maine for highly qualified professionals to work with young children with disabilities, birth to five,” Zeph says. “This project also emphasizes understanding and accommodating high-needs children and families. Not only are we looking to prepare early educators to work with children with disabilities and their families, but in particular those who are underserved — such as children who live in poverty, are homeless, and those who live in rural and remote areas where access to specialized services is limited.”

The population also includes English language learners.

Deborah Rook-Ellis, EChO project coordinator and assistant professor of birth-age 5 early intervention in CCIDS, calls the shortage of special education teachers “critical.”

“There are workers in those fields who are not certified to be there,” she says.

Providing early intervention and addressing children’s special needs at an earlier age can have a substantial positive impact on their development, Zeph says. A child’s neurological development is most rapid from birth to age 3, which makes it even more important, she adds.

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