In the fall of 2014, the DePaul College of Education undergraduate special education program admitted its first students and, on June 10, 2017, those students walked across the stage of the Rosemont Theatre as the first graduating cohort. Over the past three years, both the program and its students have developed into the top of their field.
Vincentian Mission and Special Education Go Hand in Hand
When the undergraduate special education program was initially proposed, it made perfect sense. There was a great national need for special education teachers and, with graduate programs in Special Education and Reading Specialist, the COE felt strongly that it was important to offer an undergraduate program in Special Education as well.
“Nationally, Special Education is a high-need area, with numerous positions every year remaining unfilled due to the dearth of highly-qualified and appropriately-trained special education teachers. Having a high-quality training program is essential for colleges of education in order to address this immense need. For DePaul’s College of Education, it was particularly important to offer an undergraduate special education program, as such a program is directly linked with the university’s mission, which places special emphasis on underserved members of society, such as individuals with disabilities” states Eva Patrikakou, Associate Professor in Special Education.
And that Vincentian vision was part of what drew Alyssa G. Kalb (BS '17) to the program. “One of my professors at the College of DuPage announced that DePaul established an undergraduate program for special education majors and, being that it was one of the few in the area that offered special education as a major, I began my research right away. I quickly fell in love with the urban campus, cultural diversity and Vincentian Mission.”
The particular draw of a Vincentian school for special education students does not surprise Patrikakou. “Students who choose special education as their major and successfully complete the program are not only highly motivated individuals entering a demanding field of practice, but they also embody Vincentian Personalism. They are self-motivated to contribute to the education of students with special needs in multi-faceted and meaningful ways.”
Research-based Program Development
At the launch of the program, it was essential to ensure it would not only draw in those well-intentioned students but also to send them out as well-prepared graduates.
Amy Feiker Hollenbeck, Associate Professor and Director of the undergraduate Special Education program explains, “Before designing our undergraduate special education program, we turned to research to explore evidence-based practices in teacher preparation. We were fortunate that at the time of program development, Leko, Brownell, Sindelar, & Murphy (2012) had recently published an extensive literature review addressing this topic (title: Promoting special education preservice teacher expertise, published in Focus on Exceptional Children, 44(7), 1-16).”
Four of their research-based principles form the foundation of the DePaul College of Education undergraduate Special Education program:
- Content-focused methods coursework combined with highly structured field experiences.
Faculty have designed courses in teaching literacy to struggling learners, as well as in teaching mathematics, to combine knowledge of the subject matter with special educator “know-how.” In each sequence of courses, candidates have an opportunity to teach the subject matter in a supervised on-campus laboratory setting with a struggling learner.
- Coursework paired and aligned with high-quality field experiences.
In addition to the lab courses, students have two highly structured, intensive practicum experiences in local schools before student teaching. These practicum courses provide students the opportunity to link theory with practice, implement techniques and methods learned in coursework, and process their experiences in structured seminars with an expert. Each practicum immediately follows and is closely aligned with a sequence of relevant coursework. Fieldwork is strategically placed throughout the curriculum to ensure that students have multiple high-quality opportunities to apply their learning.
- Extended, rather than abbreviated, opportunities to learn to teach.
In addition to the two 10-week labs and two school-based practicums described above, faculty have designed an extended student teaching experience. While other COE student teaching experiences range from 10-12 weeks, the undergraduate special education students have a 16-week experience with placements at both the elementary and secondary level.
- Pedagogies that promote active learning.
The program incorporates group and individual activities and projects, as well as rich case studies, into our coursework to encourage active learning and engagement. Faculty also teach a cycle of assessment, instruction, analysis, and instructional improvement in relation to all lesson planning and implementation.
“These elements are what make our program unique. Students have the opportunity to design and implement instruction beginning in their sophomore year, under close supervision in the Education and Counseling Center. Initial lab experiences in the ECC (math and reading) lead to extensive, supervised, practicum experiences, in which students have further opportunity to plan and teach lessons. This leads to 16 weeks student teaching across two placements. By spring of their senior year, our graduating students feel well-prepared to work as special educators across a variety of settings.” continues Hollenbeck.
Many of the members of the cohort cite the myriad experiential opportunities as the reason they feel prepared to enter their own classrooms post-graduation.
“By exposing me to many different field experience opportunities, DePaul has offered me windows into my future as an educator, showed me the many forms special educations can take and provided me with situations to learn from. I had the pleasure to work at Sullivan High School in Chicago in their self-contained environment. Being able to witness how the lead teacher made apriority to connect with each student on a deeper level inspired me. He made valid efforts to laugh with the students, have fun teaching the students and learning from them. It was obvious to see how the students looked up to him, and enjoyed learning in his classroom. I hope to carry his determination to connect with his students and mannerisms with me as I enter the field of education” stated Kalb.
Emily Vrabel (BS '17) agrees. “The College of Education at DePaul University has a team of hard-working faculty and administrators who have provided us with the knowledge and tools to become the best special education teachers we can be. The COE has offered us a vast amount of workshops, meetings, and field experiences to help us feel readily prepared and coursework that will be applicable for the future. I feel equipped and ready to take on my own classroom as a proud DePaul College of Education graduate.”
And some of these experiences will stay with the students for years to come.
“There was a single moment that will have a lasting impact on my career as a special educator. On my first day at my first high school placement for students with severe disabilities, I had been working with the students for about three hours and they had a little down time before lunch. We played some songs because I was told the students love to dance and sing and one of the students pulled me into her dance circle and wanted to dance with me. Sure, for her I was just another dance partner but, for me, that was the moment I felt accepted into her life. I though 'Wow! I love my job and I can’t wait to help her and all the other students succeed'. I knew I wanted to be one of the people to help these students grow and succeed in their own way and advocate for them” shared Margaret Harazin (BS '17)
Go Make a Difference
Anne Butler, Instructional Assistant Professor in Special Education, knows that the students are ready to face the challenges of the classroom. “This program has incredibly high standards and we expect a lot out of our students, especially because they will be working with students with disabilities. We want the best outcomes for our students so that they are well-prepared to best serve the students they teach. This first cohort has exceeded our expectations and I feel very strongly that they are all so well-prepared as they enter their first year of teaching. They are a very dedicated, kind bunch and they set a wonderful precedent for the program!”
Interested in becoming a special educator? DePaul's bachelor's degree in Special Education program will prepare you to teach students with exceptionalities from kindergarten to age 21 in a variety of urban and suburban educational settings, including public and private schools.
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