30 Years and Counting
T-TAC at Darden College of Education Grows in Scope and Sophistication

The longest-running, external-grant-supported project at Old Dominion University is not aligned with the university’s well-publicized research specialties in engineering and the sciences. Instead, it is a three-decades-long, $20 million program of the Darden College of Education that aims to give every child in eastern Virginia—regardless of disability-an opportunity to receive a high—quality education.

Recent grants totaling $2.5 million from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) pushed the ODU Training and Technical Assistance Center (T-TAC) over $20 million in total funding just as the facility was celebrating its 30th birthday. For the 15 faculty and staff members who work with the program, 2009 is a year to reflect on the center’s history, and also to look for innovations that will keep the program vital in the decade to come.

The evolution of ODU T-TAC, particularly how it has grown in scope and sophistication, reflects the sea change that has occurred in education strategies for schoolchildren since the late 1970s, say the center’s leaders.

Gone are the days when the mission of T-TAC personnel was to deal almost exclusively with special education teachers of disabled and other special-needs children. “In the early days, a special education teacher would call T-TAC for assistance and we’d send somebody out to the school to provide training or technical support to help that one teacher with that one child,” said Stephen Tonelson, professor in the Department of Early Childhood, Speech-Language Pathology and Special Education, who is one of the principal investigators for the VDOE grants that support the program. “Now the training and other assistance that we offer is more likely to be beneficial to all of the students in a school.”

Robert A. Gable, also a professor of early childhood and special education and who has earned the designation at ODU of eminent scholar, is the other principal investigator for the grants. He is director, as well, of a statewide T-TAC initiative called Effective Schoolwide Discipline (ESD). What he has seen in his more than a dozen years of ODU T-TAC leadership, he said, is a “disassembly of the two-box system” in which special education has been in one box and general education in another.

T-TAC Expands Beyond Special Education

Statistics for the nation show that around 12 percent of children can be expected to have special needs in school. There was a time when most of these students were segregated from the general education population and taught in different classrooms or in different schools. General education teachers sometimes initiated the transfer of students from their classes into special education classes via a process called “refer and remove.”

More recently, inclusion policies are distributing most of the children with special needs into general education classrooms. According to Gable, “The shift has been from ‘refer and remove’ to stay put.” He said the typical elementary school teacher in Virginia today has three to four students with disabilities. Nationally, fewer and fewer students with disabilities are being taught in separate special education programs.

Because T-TAC has a mandate to offer training and technical support to any teacher of students with disabilities, almost all teachers now are eligible for the help. And many of the general education teachers are taking advantage of what T-TAC offers, according to ODU T-TAC Director Kerry Lambert, whose affiliation with the center dates to 1980.

“It is particularly satisfying to recognize now that our training and support services ultimately benefit all students,” said Lambert, who became the center’s director in 1995 just after she received her Ph.D. at ODU in urban educational leadership. Previously she had served as a T-TAC staff member and coordinator. Before Tonelson and Gable became faculty leaders of the project in the mid-1990s, the university’s T-TAC principal investigators were former education faculty members Kenton Reavis and Judith Schapiro.

T-TAC originally was called TAC-5 because five centers for technical special education assistance were funded by the VDOE at universities across the state in 1978-79. “The Virginia Department of Education was at the forefront in recognizing the critical importance of early intervention for young children (with special needs),” Lambert explained.

State Department of Education Had the Vision

Added Gable, “This successful program is in place today because of the vision and support of the Virginia Department of Education.”

Two centers were added elsewhere in the state and the mission expanded when the VDOE transformed TAC-5 into T-TAC in 1995-96. The ODU T-TAC now offers training and technical assistance to eastern Virginia’s teachers, school administrators and parents in the areas of 1) early childhood special education, 2) primary developmental delays and disabilities and 3) more significant disabilities among students through high school age. The coverage area for ODU T-TAC takes in 33 school divisions in the rectangle roughly bounded by Virginia Beach and the Eastern Shore on the east and Fredericksburg and Southampton County on the west.

The ODU T-TAC team is headquartered at two locations-860 W. 44th St. and at the Lions Child Study Center on campus. Its members include: Kim Yanek, ESD instruction and behavior specialist; Pat Woolard, administrative project director and ESD logistics coordinator; Daniel Biegun, severe disabilities specialist; Laura Beller, curriculum and instruction specialist; Linda Ingleson, early childhood specialist; Kelly Koons, education specialist for autism; Brenda Lucus, assistive technology and instructional specialist; Jennifer Mitchell, assistive technology specialist; Mary Wilds, statewide coordinator for distance education; Shannon Duncan, assistant to the administrative project director; Jackie Royster, project manager; Dedie McCracken, office manager; Jean Bondy, library and Web site manager; and Erin Butler, data entry specialist.

The core T-TAC mission is to increase the capacity of school personnel, service providers and families to meet the needs of children and youth with disabilities, thereby enriching the academic and social experiences of these students. The T-TAC staff works closely with the VDOE, especially the Division of Special Education and Student Services, and currently there are 14 major state projects on which T-TAC staff participate.

ODU T-TAC services include professional development workshops and other training events; consultative services; the electronic, quarterly newsletter T-TAC Network News; other periodicals such as Autism E-News and AT (Assistive Technology) E-News; a clearinghouse for current education research and recommended practices; and a lending library that loans, among other things, the latest in assistive technology devices—an example would be voice synthesizers—that schools and parents can try before they buy.

In-service Training Complements Preservice Learning

Mariana Stefonowich, a special education teacher at Arrowhead Elementary School in Virginia Beach, regularly uses the lending library. “I love the ability to have access to assistive technology and these types of devices because the cost is so high (and) the library gives me a chance to try something before I request it,” she said. Books and thematic activities she gets from the library and from T-TAC workshops also win her endorsement. “I get bored doing the same activities for the same themes each year, so it is nice to have other resources I can borrow and consult for new ideas.”

According to Lambert, T-TAC can influence and be supported by the teacher training curriculum at the Darden College of Education. “We like to say that we do preservice at the university and T-TAC does in-service in the field,” she said.

The ODU T-TAC director noted that a unique aspect of working with the program is the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of educational change and to support school personnel as they institute evidence-based practices for the benefit of students. Lambert was given an award last year by the Virginia Council of Administrators of Special Education for extraordinary support she extends to Virginia educators.

A primary reason for the significant funding for the ODU T-TAC, even in tight budget times, is the Effective Schoolwide Discipline (ESD) program that Gable directs for the entire state. Federal initiatives such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act are the source of flow-through monies that the VDOE grants to T-TACs, and Gable’s program has been a beneficiary of a U.S. Department of Education thrust called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. More than 100 schools in Virginia are participating in ESD; across the nation, the figure now stands at more than 5,000 schools that are involved in some way with Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.

With classrooms today not nearly so homogeneous as they once were, teachers must have a much broader array of skills in order to maintain an effective learning environment. Gable said this environment depends a lot on clear expectations and forms of student recognition, and that these skills are what ESD is striving to provide to school personnel.

“The growing diversity of the student population is a challenge,” he added. By that he means ethnic and cultural diversity, as well as the sort of diversity that occurs when a general education classroom includes children with disabilities and those whose home environments have not prepared them academically or behaviorally for the curriculum.

Team Climate Helps with Discipline

Lambert noted, too, that discipline and learning-environment problems are significant drags on teacher retention. “But T-TAC and Effective Schoolwide Discipline services help,” she added. “We have found that well-prepared teachers stay in the classroom longer.”

ESD promotes a team climate in each school that is a departure from the traditional scheme of the individual teacher in an individual classroom. Common behavioral norms and expectations are expressed via ESD for all students, teachers regularly exchange data and observations, and teachers and administrators join in brainstorming to develop and assess procedural changes. “When you talk to 30 different teachers in a school, they may tell you 30 different problems they have,” said Tonelson. “But when you put them together and they collect data to get to the bottom of what’s going on, they may find agreement. Maybe they decide that lunchtime or a transitional time is the source of a lot of their problems.”

Most of the discipline-bolstering activities of ESD are aimed at a school’s entire student population, and they tend to emphasize the positive. This is called the primary tier. Only when at-risk situations emerge does ESD focus on small-group interventions at the secondary tier or single-child interventions at the tertiary tier.

“ESD is strength-based,” Gable said. “It means accentuating the positive and rewards for success. The old ‘refer and remove,’ on the other hand, focused on the negative aspects of behavior.”

Gable said that for too long American educators have been caught up in negativity that finds barriers to success in the disparities and diversities that characterize students everywhere. These disparities often involve socioeconomic status and home environments. “These are factors we cannot control. What we’re finding is that the more positive determinants of school success are those factors we can control, such as education leadership, communications, effective instruction and level of safety.”

The ODU T-TAC outreach, in trying to bring about change in areas such as school discipline, has to cope with the fact that schools have traditionally been “hierarchal and authoritarian” in structure, as Gable put it. “But teachers and administrators are realizing that roles and responsibilities are changing, and that federal regulations and best-practices implementation now require a different kind of leadership.”

Working to improve a community’s schools brings a satisfaction different from teaching at a university, Gable said. “T-TAC offers a remarkable opportunity to touch the lives of literally thousands of children.”

Quest Summer 2009 • Volume 12 Issue 1