Human services department receives $800,000 grant for special education training

CULLOWHEE – Western Carolina University’s department of human services has been awarded an $800,000 federal grant to help increase the pool of special education teachers who are fully prepared to work with clients with mild to moderate disabilities.

The U.S. Department of Education grant will fund a four-year project, “Mountain Connections II: Research to Practice,” that will bring together special education graduate students from WCU and area teachers who work with students with disabilities to learn about and implement the most recent research-based practices in special education, said project director Lisa Bloom, professor in the department of human services.

There is currently a critical shortage of special education teachers, both in the region and nationally, Bloom said. A goal of the project is to graduate 100 individuals with master’s degrees in special education over the next four years, she said.

“Many of the special education teachers employed by school systems in the region are working with provisional licenses. This project will help some of those individuals get fully licensed, as well as recruit new people into the special education field, including underrepresented populations,” Bloom said.

Individuals who participate in Mountain Connections II must have a bachelor’s degree, but the degree doesn’t necessarily have to be in special education. Students in the project will include practicing special education teachers who are enrolled part time in WCU’s graduate program, full-time graduate students in special education and allied professions such as school psychology, and other individuals who are interested in entering the field, including people with disabilities, Bloom said.

Students chosen for the special training will receive funds to cover most of the cost of WCU tuition, books and travel expenses to conferences. In return, the students must commit to teaching special education for the same number of years that they receive the financial support.

The students will participate in “research to practice” groups in 11 Western North Carolina school systems, where they will explore and carry out new research-based ideas, all with the goal of improving services for children with mild to moderate disabilities, Bloom said. School systems in the counties of Buncombe, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Swain and Transylvania will be involved in the project, as well as Cherokee Central Schools.

The project also will provide opportunities for WCU graduate students to conduct research on the programs that serve children with mild to moderate disabilities, Bloom said.

The WCU project was awarded funding through the Department of Education’s Personnel Preparation for Students with High Incidence Disabilities competition. Out of 145 applicants across the country, WCU’s project was one of 27 that were funded.

Mountain Connections II will build on an earlier project that began in 1994, “Mountain Connections I,” which was aimed at improving services to children with behavioral disorders.

The project also will involve WCU faculty members Sharon Dole, assistant professor in special education; John Habel, associate professor in the department of psychology; Jane Perlmutter, professor in the department of elementary and middle grades education; and Marissa Ray, an instructor in special education at WCU, who will serve as project coordinator.

The Mountain Connections II grant is the second major grant the U.S. Department of Education has awarded to WCU’s department of human services this year. A $1.4 million grant will be used to train speech-language pathologists to work with individuals with severe disabilities and autism.

Individuals interested in participating Mountain Connections II are asked to contact WCU’s department of human services at (828) 227-7310.