Stephen J. Hernandez, EdD, Co-Director, Hofstra Early Childhood Intervention Specialist (HECIS) program, Hofstra University
Diane Schwartz, EdD, Professor of Special Education and Co-Director, HECIS program, Hofstra University
in the Spring 2015 Hofstra Horizons
As longtime practitioners and academics in the field of early childhood special education, we have had the privilege of working with and educating hundreds of early childhood special educators. Our experience has also provided us with insight into the needs of the field, most notably those related to the increased incidence of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) in young children that has been emerging over the past few years. It was this ever-growing rise in the number of children with ASD that led the U.S. Department of Education to award $1.24 million to Hofstra University’s School of Education over five years to develop a new cadre of early childhood special education teachers who could serve the growing population of young children with autism and other developmental disabilities.
The Growth of Autism
The process of securing the grant involved the submission of a proposal that would specify how we would use the awarded funds to educate as many highly skilled professionals as possible. The creation of that proposal involved delving into our collective knowledge and gathering relevant literature as well as data showing the growth in the number of children with autism among certain demographic groups in New York in general and particularly here on Long Island. We knew that the national percentage of children classified with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) is now estimated to be 1 in 50 children, with boys receiving the diagnosis 4 out of 5 times in comparison to girls (Centers for Disease Control, 2012). As a point of comparison, in 2012 the CDC reported the rate of autism was 1 in 88. When it comes to children with disabilities, the number of students with special needs ages 3-5 that were classified with ASD is now 6.9 percent of total enrollment in special education (U.S. Department of Education, 2013). What was surprising to us was the data from the CDC showing that the greatest increases in autism occurred among Hispanic and African American children. Such demographic trends are having a significant impact on the Long Island and New York regions as a result of the enhanced diversity that has occurred in these communities. Specifically, per the 2010 Census, Nassau County has experienced a 46.6 percent growth in the Hispanic population while Suffolk County has seen a 64.8 percent growth. The African American community has an average growth rate in the Long Island region of 11.8 percent. In total, the Hispanic and African American community now represents 12.4 percent of the Long Island population and 16.75 percent of the population in New York City.
The Need for Early Childhood Special Educators
We also found that in conjunction with the ever-rising incidence of autism, there is growing need for educators with the requisite skills to work with young children with disabilities. In particular, the U.S. Department of Labor (2009) projects a 21.6 percent growth in the need for special educators serving young children between now and 2020 as a result of increased growth in the identified need for special educators and the retirement of current personnel. Even more so, the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (2009) estimated that over 113,000 new special educators will be needed to serve the estimated 8.0 percent growth in student enrollment for grades pre-K through 8 between now and 2020 (U.S. Department of Education, 2013). Projections from the National Center for Educational Statistics (U.S. Department of Education, 2013) anticipate that trends in student enrollment will not change, resulting in the current percentage of students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Part B (13.2 percent) growing at a rate of 8.0 percent, resulting in an additional 410,000 children below the secondary level being served by 2021.
At the state level, the New York State Department of Labor (2010) predicts over 1,600 openings on average per year requiring special educators at the pre-K, kindergarten and elementary grades. Regionally, the state predicts a 14.6-14.8 percent growth rate in the New York City and Long Island regions, with an average of 215 openings per year (New York State Department of Labor, 2012). Specifically, the National Center for Educational Statistics (U.S. Department of Education, 2011) notes an overall increase in enrollment by 80,000 for grades pre-K through 8 in New York state between 2010 and 2021, resulting in an additional 13,360 students served under IDEA.
The HECIS Program
After securing the grant award of $1.24 million in July 2013, we immediately began the process of launching the Hofstra Early Childhood Intervention Specialist (HECIS) program. Hofstra’s School of Education will receive the grant funds over a five-year period in relatively equal installments of approximately $249,000. This grant will provide substantial tuition support to dozens of graduate students over the course of five years and will allow individuals who otherwise would not be able to pursue a graduate degree in special education to acquire the skills necessary to serve the growing population of young children with developmental delays and disabilities. Students, or “scholars” as they are called in the program, receive tuition remission for 18 credits through the grant and could receive further tuition remission for an additional 15 credits through other scholarships. Together, a total of 33 out of the 45 credits can be completed with full tuition remission.
The mission of the HECIS program is to improve learning outcomes for young children with special needs and their families by increasing the number of graduates fully prepared to bring about improvements in educational and developmental services. These objectives build upon the goals of Hofstra’s Special Education program to provide the theoretical context for understanding disabling conditions, including a sound foundational understanding of developmental growth, models of inclusive education, and research-based methodologies designed to help all children reach their potential. The programs are designed to develop ethical scholar practitioners who will be capable of working with diverse populations in a variety of social and cultural contexts.
The HECIS program prepares individuals with degrees in elementary and early childhood education to serve young children with special needs in a number of settings, including early intervention for infants and toddlers (IDEA, Part C) as well as services for preschool and school-aged children from kindergarten through grade 2 (IDEA, Part B). With this training, graduates of the program are eligible for certification in New York state as a Teacher for Students with Disabilities, birth-grade 2. In addition, the HECIS program qualifies graduates to become Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs), a certification provided by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB), a credentialing program under the auspices of the National Commission for Certifying Agencies in Washington, D.C. Competencies required include knowledge of basic behavior analytic skills involving measurement, experimental design, fundamental elements of behavior change, and behavior-change systems, as well as client-centered responsibilities, including assessment and intervention strategies with observable and measurable terms, ongoing documentation of data, and intervention design. Receiving the BCBA credential, in addition to the NYS certification described above, provides program graduates with the highest level of qualifications desired by agencies and schools serving young children with disabilities, especially those with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Our program partners Hofstra University with the Developmental Disabilities Institute (DDI) and the Genesis/Eden II School. Both organizations offer services for young children with disabilities in multiple locations in New York City and Long Island. Dr. Mary McDonald, an associate professor in the School of Education and the instructor for several of the courses in the HECIS program, notes that the relationship with the Genesis/Eden II School is ideal for the program scholars. Dr. McDonald also serves as director of outreach and consultation programs at the Genesis/ Eden II School. At DDI, scholars have the opportunity to work closely with seasoned professionals in classrooms serving infants, toddlers and preschoolers with disabilities. Dr. Linda Whitaker, director of the Starting Early program with DDI and an adjunct professor in the HECIS program at Hofstra, provides guidance and support to HECIS scholars and coordinates their field experiences at DDI.
By working with the staff at DDI and the Genesis/Eden II School, HECIS scholars are gaining crucial hands-on experience. With its combination of a master’s degree in early childhood special education and an advanced certificate in applied behavior analysis, this dual degree program trains future scholar-practitioners in how best to meet the needs of all students, especially those with disabilities that may result in challenging and maladaptive social behaviors. Challenging behaviors are associated with a number of disabilities, including autism (CDC, 2012) and intellectual disabilities (McGill, Murphy, & Kelly-Pike, 2009) as well as emotional disturbance (Friend, 2011). Behavioral problems have been linked to a diverse list of manifestations, including generalized noncompliance, aggression, self-injury, destructiveness and bullying (Roberts, Mazzucchelli, Taylor, Kelly, & Reid, 2003). The unfortunate reality is that 53 percent of teachers cite problem behavior as a major source of job dissatisfaction, while 44 percent of those who left teaching cited problem behavior as the primary reason for quitting their jobs (U.S. Department of Education, 2011).
Successful management of challenging behaviors becomes even more pressing when one considers the inclusion of students with disabilities in typical classroom settings. The NCES reported in 2010 that students with disabilities increased their regular presence in general education classrooms by almost 13 percent in the nine years from 2000 to 2009, going from 46.5 percent to 59.4 percent. That trend has occurred across the board and in particular with students with intellectual disabilities, emotional disturbance and ASDs. The U.S. Department of Education recently reported that over 50 percent of children with disabilities ages 3-5 are diagnosed with ASD and that almost 95 percent of all students with disabilities spend at least part of their day in general education settings (U.S. Department of Education, 2013).
Setting High Academic Standards
With the growing incidence of Autism Spectrum Disorders and other behavioral disabilities in young children, this dual degree program sets the standard for high-quality teacher preparation in early childhood special education. Dr. Hernandez (a former early childhood special education teacher) and Dr. Schwartz (a school administrator for children with special needs for over 22 years) know that this program and its course of study will provide invaluable skills to the scholars.
Hofstra University is at the forefront of teacher preparation in New York state and the country. This is exemplified by our decision to be an accelerated participant in the adoption of the new standard in teacher preparation, the Educator Teacher Performance Assessment, commonly called edTPA, thus transforming the meaning of effective teaching from one that had as its goal the successful delivery of the curriculum to one that expects teaching to result in a positive impact on student learning (Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE), 2012). By incorporating edTPA into its teacher preparation programs, the School of Education will ensure the successful creation of teacher scholars who are able to meet the most currently identified performance objectives. These objectives include the development and application of knowledge regarding the needs of learners with varied needs as well as how to best support them in the modern-day classroom. In addition, our teachers will learn to use student-specific goals, content standards, and ongoing assessment to inform interventions. Our graduates will be able to create instructional and performance adaptations and accommodations, and know how to have learners generalize and maintain newly learned knowledge and skills (SCALE, 2012). The incorporation of edTPA is in alignment with the Common Core, New York State Teaching Standards, the Danielson Framework for Professional Practice as well as the Council for Accreditation of Teacher Preparation (SCALE, 2012). Finally, the HECIS program has designed signature assessments that gauge our graduate students’ incorporation of the edTPA competencies into their own individual skill sets. These will be part of a multiple measures assessment system that integrates observation and supervisory evaluation and feedback along with a capstone assessment that assimilates lesson planning, instruction, student assessment and an analysis of pedagogy into a comprehensive plan of teacher preparation.
The implementation of edTPA is in keeping with Hofstra University’s long history of elite credentials from highly regarded accreditation agencies. As early as 2004, Hofstra pioneered an inclusive master’s degree program in early childhood special education and was one of only three schools of higher education in New York state whose special education programs were approved by the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), the premier professional organization in the field of teaching students with disabilities. Cutting edge at the time of registration, the program’s competencies continue to form the foundation for the graduate degree programs but have now been reconstructed to meet edTPA evidence-based assessment criteria. As recently as March 2013, our School of Education was ranked in the top 100 of all graduate schools of education in the United States (U.S. News and World Report, 2013).
It should be noted that Hofstra University has long been the model in providing support for students with disabilities, starting in the 1960s when it became the first campus in the nation to be 100 percent architecturally barrier free (under the leadership of the college’s then-Provost Harold Yuker, who was himself born with cerebral palsy). The late Dr. Frank Bowe, who served on the faculty of Hofstra’s Department of Special Education from 1989 to 2007, served as executive director of the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities from 1976 to 1981. He provided crucial direction during the nationwide sit-in regarding Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act in 1977, the world’s first civil rights provision for persons with disabilities, which eventually led to the American with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990.
Preparing Early Childhood Special Educators
Our HECIS program and its transformative inclusion of this new model will ensure the preparation of teacher scholars who will be able to provide for the educational development of learners of all capabilities, including those with behavioral difficulties that often present challenges to their ability to succeed in school. Graduates of the Hofstra MSEd in Special Education Early Childhood Intervention program must also be knowledgeable about the historical, social and legal foundations of the field; become experts at typical and atypical development across cognitive, communicative, social-emotional, motor and adaptive domains; understand the nature and needs associated with disabilities in young children, specifically ASDs; be able to manage the behavior of students with disabilities and promote the development of positive social interaction skills; value collaboration, including family strengthening partnerships; be able to assess, diagnose, and evaluate learning and apply research-validated methods of instructing students with disabilities, including methods of teaching reading and mathematics; be knowledgeable about the use of technology and assistive technology and the application of Universal Design for Learning (UDL); and, finally, be aware of the importance of facilitating ways to support young students with disabilities in general education settings. Our graduates will meet this need through the implementation of the Common Core, UDL, as well as differentiated instruction into an inclusive platform designed to optimize learner development and achievement. The conceptual framework of the program is illustrated on page 35.
Preparing Ethical Professionals
Graduates of Hofstra’s early childhood special education programs are also required to meet the ethical dispositions as outlined in the CEC Code of Ethics for educators of persons with disabilities. More specifically, they must:
“be committed to developing the highest educational and quality of life potential of individuals with exceptionalities, promote and maintain a high level of competence and integrity in practicing their profession, engage in professional activities that benefit individuals with exceptionalities, their families, other colleagues, students, or research subjects, strive to advance their knowledge and skills regarding the education of individuals with exceptionalities, work within the standard and policies of their profession, and uphold and improve where necessary, the laws, regulations, and policies governing the delivery of special education and related services and the practice of their profession” (CEC, 2010).
Our HECIS Scholars
At the center of the HECIS program are the scholars, and we are proud to note that news of the HECIS program has spread far and wide, with potential scholars expressing interest in the program from all across New York state and the nation. Currently the program has 14 scholars, and their academic excellence and commitment to the field of early childhood special education has set the bar for all future applicants. For example Ms. Stephany Turcios-Melara, a resident of Brooklyn, New York, currently serves as a substitute teacher in the New York City public schools, working with children with a wide variety of abilities. In a recent interview, Stephany provided insight as to why she enrolled in the HECIS program to become an early childhood special educator:
“For as long as I can remember, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. During high school I had the opportunity to work with a nonprofit organization in my community that served children and families affected by autism. Their focus on applied behavior analysis sparked my interest in this field, which led me to apply to the HECIS program. Through my experiences in NYC public schools and Long Island programs, I realized there was a huge need for bilingual special education professionals in early intervention settings. My goal after graduating from the HECIS program is to work with Spanish-speaking students and their families who are learning to navigate the special education system. I plan to continue my education and gain experiences so that I can also serve as an advocate for Latino student families and communities in high-needs areas. I am excited to begin my career upon completion of this program, and I am looking forward to my future endeavors in the special education field.”
Another scholar, Ms. Meaghan Mooney, has been working as a teacher assistant with young children with autism in a local school on Long Island and wanted to pursue a graduate degree in early childhood special education. In a recent discussion, Meaghan shared a few of her thoughts regarding the HECIS program:
“For several years I had worked at Camp ANCHOR, specifically with young boys with ASD. Upon graduating from the University of Scranton, I was disappointed that my degree was in general education because I realized I really wanted to work with individuals with disabilities in schools. So when researching schools in my local area I saw that Hofstra had a great special education program. As a bonus I was contacted by you to see if I was interested in the Advanced Certificate ABA program. After I looked into the program, I was extremely excited because ABA was one of the fields that I was very interested in working in … so I accepted.”
She also discussed her career goals:
“After completing the HECIS program, I plan to work at a high-needs school in our area, either on Long Island or in the city. I am excited to spend some time in an area where I have not had much experience, and I hope to create a better future and better lives for those children.”
Meaghan’s excitement was echoed by another scholar, Christina Shortell, who told us that when she originally heard about the HECIS program she was excited to be a part of the program. She said, “it would not only satisfy my desire for a special education degree, but also enhance my knowledge of applied behavior analysis.” Combining the two areas not only enables marketability but also provides for a more knowledgeable and versatile teacher within the classroom. Christina went on to say that she hoped to become more versatile in the special education field, and to learn and implement strategies and techniques “that will not only strengthen my ability as a teacher, but also enable my future students to become successful and independent individuals.”
Our most recently admitted scholar, Melissa Horsford, was searching for the right graduate degree program and at the last minute decided to attend a Graduate Open House at Hofstra in July 2014. In a recent discussion, Melissa said, “When I first heard about the program, I was delighted to learn of the incentives for prospective candidates, which included partial funding to help pay for grad school.” Melissa also added that she was excited that the program included courses that fulfill the requirement to be board certified as a behavioral analyst. “I was intrigued by what the program offered, and it applied to what I wanted to achieve as a special educator.”
Finally, Ms. Susan Sheen, an experienced elementary educator who decided to return to the field after raising her children, exemplifies the motivation and determination that we look for in our scholars. Susan stated that she returned to school because she wanted to learn more about autism and the impact of early intervention. She also wanted to get back into the classroom after taking time off to be home with her three children and working part-time at her church, where she recently started working with children with developmental delays. Susan believes the HECIS program will help her learn about the recent developments in early childhood special education and also help her fill the growing need for early intervention specialists.
As one can see, HECIS scholars are unique and diverse in many ways, but all share the pursuit of academic excellence and the desire to serve young children with special needs. They are committed to the field and the young children they will serve as early childhood special educators. They all have a very bright future and rewarding careers ahead of them.
Impact on the Community
Ms. Carolyn Gammerman, director of the Long Island Early Childhood Direction Center, a component of the New York State Department of Education that provides information and helps families obtain services for their young children with developmental disabilities, articulates the sentiment of many professionals in the field. Ms. Gammerman noted, “The challenges presented by young children with disabilities often result in maladaptive social behaviors in early childhood settings and homes.” Ms. Gammerman recognizes that educators and families alike seek assistance with teaching appropriate behaviors and improving learning outcomes in children from a very young age, and she believes Hofstra is responding to this need with the HECIS program and its dual certification in early childhood special education and applied behavior analysis. She is pleased that scholars in the program will have the opportunity to gain valuable hands-on experience in early childhood special education settings and that its comprehensive teacher preparation will help to ensure that children on Long Island will have the best possible outcomes in school, at home and in their future endeavors.
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