The University of Central Florida (UCF) has established Project Bridges, an Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP)-funded personnel preparation grant with the goal of recruiting high-quality graduate students to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to meet the academic and behavioral needs of students with severe and/or persistent learning or behavioral challenges. In addition, the grant aims to: (1) prepare scholars in evidence-based classroom and clinical practices that lead to state certification in Exceptional Student Education and an Intervention Specialist Graduate Certificate and (2) to retain and support scholars through induction with continued support and mentorship. Project Bridges is led by Co-Principal Investigators Dr. Mary Little and Dr. Cynthia Pearl and supported by Dr. Dena Slanda, Preeminent Postdoctoral Researcher in the College of Education and Human Performance. View part 2 to learn more
National Center on Intensive Intervention (NCII): How has Project Bridges been designed to support scholars in developing the skills and competencies necessary to meet the needs of students with intensive learning and behavioral challenges?
Mary Little: We were looking at complex skills and higher order skills [in Project Bridges], so we decided we wanted to fit this into our master’s degree program in education. We wanted the program to be very multidisciplinary so we included our faculty in reading, mathematics, and school psychology as part of the team to develop the program itself. We used resources from the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) standards, the National Center on Intensive Intervention (NCII), the IRIS Center, and the Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability and Reform (CEEDAR) Center to develop content. We also had great feedback and input from our colleagues in the school districts surrounding the University of Central Florida. It took about a year of planning to ensure we were meeting the competencies and aligning the curriculum using the most rigorous materials and resources available.
Once a curriculum was set, we collected input [from our stakeholders] to determine how we wanted to impart this information. It was a very collaborative process. There's a great passion that's involved with this work and connecting the scholars, the teacher candidates (with their day-to-day work) while also being very clear about the change processes that are involved with initial implementation. Dr. Slanda, you are working on the actual class. What are your thoughts?
Dena Slanda: I think one of the things we've tried to do within our program is to ensure we are using the teacher voices. Therefore, a lot of the coursework is not just someone relaying information as to how it should be or what it should look like, but really talking to the scholars, learning from the scholars’ needs, and seeing how we can best match them to resources that will meet their needs.
Mary Little: I think Dr. Slanda brings up an excellent point because Covey said years ago, “Begin with the end in mind,” and so from the very first class the scholars write case studies of a student they're most concerned about—the kids with the most severe and persistent learning and behavioral needs. The second performance task we ask our scholars to complete is a school improvement plan. Many of the resources they use on these performance tasks come from NCII. The scholars start by interviewing folks within their schools; they start looking at the policy statements, their school improvement plans, and everything else at their site. Then we, as their professors, start layering in and scaffolding their learning with resources so that the scholars are creating authentic performance tasks and answers to their questions.
Cynthia Pearl: Absolutely! When you look at the whole thing (Project Bridges), we started with talking to school districts. We started with partnerships with school districts and asked them what they thought was needed to address the students who were not making progress currently in schools. We started with that kind of collaboration with school districts and designed a program based on that input.
The other thing we highlighted with districts and prospective scholars was these teachers were going to be special; they were going to be advocates. We felt strongly that they were in this program with their administrators. Dr. Little has been out to visit and talk to the administrators in their schools to facilitate our scholars being seen as change agents within their schools, and many of our scholars have moved forward into leadership positions, as a result of, and with the support of, the project.
NCII: What are some of the critical skills that you think are necessary for teachers to successfully implement intensive intervention?
Dena Slanda: I think, based on scholar feedback, what they appreciate is when they get what they have referred to as a “tool belt.” I don't think there's any one item, strategy, or way of working with students who have intensive needs. As part of the program, our scholars have opportunities to work in reading and mathematics clinics. Through these experiences, scholars can implement what they are learning in class. For example, they may draw from one of 10 to 15 different evidence-based strategies they have learned to address the needs of an individual student. In this way, the resources and strategies available in their tool belts help them to practice customizing supports for students.
Mary Little: I couldn't agree more, Dr. Slanda, with what you said. I just read an article that talks about data-based individualized instruction, called Developing Diagnostic Competence1. It makes perfect sense when we think about all the parts and pieces of intensive intervention: using multiple assessments for decisions, looking at subcategories, and looking at all the resources that are available. It is important to keep developing that diagnostic competence among all our scholars individually, all the while developing their collaboration skills, because data-based individualization is such a collaborative process.
In addition, I think it is important to develop the advocacy skills, the knowledge skills, and the gumption within our scholars that, “I'm going to keep seeking until I have a solution for students with severe and persistent needs.” Our scholars know they have a cohort around them for support. I think that's why we work hard with developing that sense of collaboration and cohort partnership while our scholars are here and why we make proactive connections with their districts to ensure they are supported after they leave the program as well.
View Part 2 , in which Drs. Slanda, Little, and Pearl share some of the challenges and successes they have faced while implementing their program.
Brodie K., Marchant J., Molefe N., Chimhande T. (2018) Developing Diagnostic Competence Through Professional Learning Communities. In: Leuders T., Philipp K., Leuders J. (Eds), Diagnostic Competence of Mathematics Teachers. (Mathematics Teacher Education, vol 11). Springer: Cham.