School of Education Awarded $3.7M Department of Education Grant to Recruit Special Education Leaders

Syracuse University School of Education has been awarded a $3.7 million grant from the US Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services to prepare—along with two partner institutions—a new generation of leaders in special education, early intervention, and related services.

Specifically, Project IMMERSE (Inclusive, Multicultural, Multilingual, Effective, and Responsive Special Education) aims to prepare up to 14 doctoral-level special education professors and educational leaders through a multi-university partnership. These students will gain expertise in inclusive, culturally-sustaining, effective educational practices with the goal of improving outcomes for diverse students with disabilities, both in high needs schools and minority serving institutions. Together, this doctoral cohort will represent a new collaborative consortium of diverse scholars in the field of inclusive special education.

Project IMMERSE is led by Professor Christy Ashby G’01, G’07, G’08, Director of SOE’s Center on Disability and Inclusion. Ashby is joined by co-principal investigators Professor Beth Myers, Executive Director of SOE’s Taishoff Center for Inclusive Higher Education; SOE Professor Julia M. White G’05, G’07; professors Allison Nannemann, Sarah Carlson, and Yen Pham of the University of New Mexico; and SOE alumni professors Casey Woodfield G’10, G’16, Michelle Damiani G’05, G’14, G’19, and Brent Elder G’14, G’16 of Rowan University.

“Project IMMERSE is well positioned to address a persistent shortage of both special education faculty in institutions of higher education and highly qualified Pre-K-12 special education teachers, especially with expertise to meet the needs of diverse students with disabilities,” says Professor Ashby. “Through our consortium with Rowan University and the University of New Mexico, this cohort-based project will prepare much-needed and highly qualified leaders with specialization in culturally and linguistically responsive inclusive instruction, interventions, and services.”

The project addresses a current critical need for special education teachers at a time when there are an estimated 36,500 teacher vacancies nationwide and more than 100,000 teaching positions filled by under-qualified personnel. This shortage means school districts across the country are relying on uncertified teachers to fill classrooms. Of approximately 109,000 uncertified teachers, around 5,800 are special education teachers.

At the same time, although demand for special education teachers is expected to increase in the next decade, an unprecedented shortage of special education professors nationwide has led to a drop in the number of graduates ready to assume special education faculty and leadership positions.

Moreover, research indicates that current educators in special education roles are primarily white and female, with only 18% being teachers of color. Similarly, the makeup of special education faculty and doctoral students is overwhelmingly white and female. Yet almost half of students with disabilities are students of color. “This is a concerning reality given evidence demonstrating that students benefit from having teachers who represent their own identities,” explains Ashby.

To counter this disparity, Project IMMERSE will feature a multifaceted recruitment and mentoring process guided by experienced faculty across the three partner universities. Students’ shared academic experiences will emphasize culturally responsive and inclusive instructional practices, as well as research into high-needs, diverse communities.

“My colleagues and I are thrilled to be part of this multi-university partnership and contribute to diversifying the field of special education leaders,” says Professor Woodfield of Rowan University. “As three SOE alumni, Professor Damiani, Professor Elder, and I consider this partnership to be an example of the generative possibilities that can grow out of sustained collaboration and shared commitments to cultivating intersectional, culturally sustaining, and inclusive experiences across all facets of schooling. We look forward to working alongside Project IMMERSE doctoral scholars.”