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POINT PARK IN FOREFRONT OF Preparing Special Ed Teachers

Curriculum embraces new programs, community partnerships

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The Point
Fall 2011

On-site observation is a key component of Point Park’s new Autism Spectrum Disorders course.

Students study the causes, characteristics and treatments of autism disorders, then travel to the Watson Institute in Sewickley, Pa., to observe children with autism and collect data about teaching strategies, positive behavior guidance, family interactions and more.

Graduate student Annamarie Casciato says she was fascinated by the process of collecting behavioral data. “At [Watson’s] Education Center, we observed students ages 14 and up and documented the antecedent, or what led to a student’s change in behavior. Then we recorded the behavior observed, and finally the consequence.”

Collecting and analyzing “ABC” data helps students identify behaviors and interventions used to improve the attention, language and social skills of children with autism, says Marilyn Hoyson, chief operating officer of the Watson Institute and an adjunct professor at Point Park.

Dual Certification Option

Hoyson began teaching the course last year as the Department of Education initiated a dual certification option for undergraduates, which enables students to pursue Pennsylvania’s new requirements for special education certification along with initial teaching certification. Students may specialize in either pre-kindergarten through grade eight, or grades seven through 12.

Point Park is one of only 13 schools in the state approved for special education at the secondary level leading to certification at the same time as teaching certification. In addition, the University is one of the few to offer the programs over four years, including the student teaching practicum.

New M.Ed. in Special Education

This fall Point Park enrolls the first cohort of teachers in the M.Ed. in special education leading to Pennsylvania certification. The new master’s offers advanced training in teaching special needs students.

Interest in the programs has been strong, says Darlene Marnich, Ph.D., education department chair.

“Special education teachers and general education teachers increasingly work together in general education classrooms as schools become more inclusive, so this training is crucial,” says Marnich, “It enhances the skills of all, now that teachers and school districts are facing new challenges due to state funding reductions.”

Graduate student Kristen Weaver, who has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Point Park and is a group supervisor at the Jewish Community Center’s Early Childhood Development Center, says she is confident the M.Ed. in special education will make her more marketable in the future. “I know that having the degree will make me a better teacher, whether I am working in a regular classroom or special education setting.”

“Point Park graduates will certainly be welcomed by public and private school principals looking for the most qualified teachers with special education certification,” says J. Kaye Cupples, Ph.D., associate professor of special education.

Cupples has 34 years of experience in special education teaching and administration in the Pittsburgh Public Schools and leadership roles with such organizations as the Parent Education and Advocacy Leadership Center. Upon joining the University, Cupples worked with faculty and community and agency experts to design the undergraduate and graduate programs and used his extensive network to expand professional collaborations.

Partnerships Enrich Learning

Partnerships with organizations such as the Watson Institute enrich learning and provide students with multiple perspectives, he says. For example, this fall an Allegheny Intermediate Unit professional will lead Point Park graduate students in a new assistive technology course.

Other courses in the master’s program include a class on high incidence disabilities, taught by an educator with extensive experience in all three categories: learning disabilities, mild intellectual disabilities and emotional disturbances. As in other courses, students will explore the importance of family partnerships and the roles that collaboration and communication play in children’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) plans.

“The goal is to prepare Point Park students to demonstrate they have met the competencies the state has outlined, and that they are each prepared to take over a special education class,” Cupples says. The graduate program, he notes, allows for students to undertake specialized research and gain experience in specific areas.

A Model for Educators

Point Park is providing a model for other universities across the state. The Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network (PaTTAN), which assists the state’s Bureau of Special Education, invited Point Park to give a presentation on its program at the organization’s meetings last year. PaTTAN also awarded the University $60,000 in grants to increase community collaborations and produce publications about the new programs.

Point Park’s 36-credit M.Ed. is structured to fit the schedules of educators and professionals and provides a means for teachers to acquire the credits needed to obtain Level 2 certification. The program prepares teachers more fully to meet the challenges of today’s inclusive schools, says Marnich.

“The teaching strategies learned in the special education program will positively serve all students. These teachers will be an asset to any school district and, as such, will definitely be more marketable.”

Text by Colleen Derda
Photo by Martha Rial

The Point is a magazine for alumni and friends of Point Park University.