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.
In Part 1
of the interview, Drs. Slanda, Little, and Pearl share information about the structure and skills targeted in the Project Bridges program. In Part 2, they share challenges and successes they have faced in supporting their scholars to implement intensive intervention.
National Center on Intensive Intervention (NCII): What are some challenges in preparing teachers to engage in intensive intervention, and how have you overcome or addressed those challenges?
Cynthia Pearl: One of the biggest challenges scholars face in implementing intensive intervention is the variability and lack of flexibility in how multitiered systems of support (MTSS) are implemented across schools and districts. Many schools have adopted prescribed programs (i.e., computer programs that deliver Tier 2 interventions). For example, in some schools, the Tier 2 or Tier 3 intervention may be a computer program or standard, commercially available program. In this case, when our scholars came in and did something really individualized to support students with intensive needs, it did not fit with the district’s or school’s MTSS framework.
This rigidity and lack of understanding about intensive intervention also was manifested in a common challenge in special education—a lack of administrative knowledge and support. One of the key features of the Project Bridges program (discussed in Part 1) is making a connection between administrators in the schools and the scholars. Making this connection helped to address misconceptions and to support scholars with the implementation of intensive intervention.
In addition, scholars experienced limited collaboration between general and special educators. As we identified this challenge, we encouraged our scholars to get out of their special education portables or wherever they were in the schools and to be part of the whole school. We challenged them to see themselves as leaders in their schools for intensive intervention.
Other concerns our scholars in Florida faced were overwhelmingly large caseloads and highly transient populations. Both of those factors made it difficult for the special educators to engage in the work of intensive intervention.
Mary Little: There was just a recent article in Education Week that talked about some of the challenges for special education teachers (with a specific focus on inclusion). It just hit right on the money with intensive intervention, too, because we're also looking at very complex, data-based, individualized systems. Within these systems (i.e., inclusion and intensive intervention), we have a myriad of other challenges that Dr. Pearl reviewed and that Dr. Slanda's research is showing. Within a system, there are just so many other factors that make up schools, services, and the roles of special education and general education teachers, and this [level of complexity] has proved to be a challenge.
Cynthia Pearl: I think one [challenge] that we haven’t mentioned is related to behavioral challenges and our scholars’ preparation to deal with students who have significant behaviors. In response, we offered two courses in behavior. Our courses are grounded in applied behavior analysis, so the scholars made a lot of progress in terms of learning about behavioral management; but I think behavior still emerged as one of the biggest challenges.
Dena Slanda: Dr. Pearl mentioned that schools have commercially-available products or computer-based programs to administer some of their interventions. Our scholars were required by administrators to use these resources, so it took the human element out. Therefore, we continued to ask ourselves: “How do we prepare our scholars to work when their resources tie their hands; and how can they overcome those challenges?” I don't think it was just how do we overcome challenges in preparing them [the scholars], but how do we assist them in overcoming the challenges that they're facing within their school districts.
When we say that administrative knowledge and support was a challenge, we believe at times it was both administrators’ lack of knowledge and misconceptions about MTSS. Some administrators may think that they're doing the right thing by spending a significant amount of money on a computer program that does a great job of measuring progress but, in reality, it lacks that individualized intervention piece that the student needs to make progress. As their professors, we would try to help our scholars with how the teacher can use this standardized program but also how to supplement the program to make the learning more individualized. We also helped our scholars look for changes that the district could make systemically to overcome the challenge of resources.
NCII: What are some areas in which you have seen the most successes or about which you are most proud of your program?
Mary Little: We have a high graduation rate within the program. We just finished a manuscript about our scholars’ perceptions of themselves as intervention specialists. Not only did they stay longer in the profession and were quality hires, but they also perceived themselves as being very knowledgeable and possessing a lot of competencies. We also had a number of scholars who have been asked to have a more district-wide leadership role, so they have opportunities to share their knowledge with others in their schools or districts.
Dena Slanda:To build on what Dr. Little was just saying, when our scholars entered the program, we did a survey to determine what their current skills were based on the Council for Exceptional Children’s (CEC’s) standards. When the scholars exited our program, we evaluated them again by doing a post-survey using the same skills. We have noticed from pre- to post-survey that there is a statistically significant difference across several areas. The results indicated that scholars had improved their knowledge base in interventions, collaboration, assessment, and outcomes.
As Dr. Little and Dr. Pearl mentioned, scholars have taken on leadership roles within their schools and helped their schools to make changes to their MTSS systems. We have several examples of scholars helping their schools to shift their thinking about MTSS and intervention. I find those to be really big successes and great measures of how scholars have been able to take the knowledge learned in Project Bridges and implement it within their respective school contexts.
Also, one thing that we continue to do once our scholars graduate is to stay in touch with them and to encourage them to stay in touch with each other. The program becomes a big part of who they are and how they see themselves, so they do continue to stay in touch. Some of our scholars have moved as far away as Colorado, and they continue to use the resources that they gained in our program. They continue to interact with people in their cohort to collaborate, share ideas, and keep the work of MTSS implementation moving forward.