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ODU's Hester Gets $800,000 Grant to Promote Doctoral Studies in Special Education

Old Dominion University Professor Peggy Hester has some interesting ideas about how to address the nation's shortage of academicians in the field of special education, and the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) has anted up $800,000 to help her implement them.

Her project aims to recruit and prepare at least eight doctoral graduates who will earn a Ph.D. in Education with a concentration in Special Education from ODU's Darden College of Education. Emphasis will be placed on recruiting and graduating candidates whose cultural and linguistic backgrounds are not well represented in the field.

According to the project design, the participants will become faculty members at colleges and universities where they will conduct research, translate that knowledge into best practices in classrooms, and increase the number of teachers trained to work with the ever-growing population of students with special needs and students at risk of educational failure.

"In Virginia, and throughout the United States, there is a shortage of special education leadership personnel to fill higher education faculty positions. The Special Education Program at ODU has stepped up to the plate, so to speak, to help address this critical need," Hester said.

ODU's recently launched program, which produced its first doctoral graduate in May, has incorporated a number of features that research shows to be integral to doctoral programs of excellence. These include financial incentives in order to recruit highly qualified doctoral candidates, a rigorous program of study that addresses critical issues in special education, a program that focuses on research, scholarship and teaching, and the use of a mentoring or a junior-colleague model of training.

In a junior-colleague model of training, doctoral candidates work closely with faculty in teaching, research, writing manuscripts, presenting at conferences, and participating in faculty meetings and service organizations.

Mentoring and modeling in the multiple aspects of being university faculty have been advocated as critical to a student's decision to enter an academic career, according to Hester. "It is the centrality of relationship that's important," she explained. "Whether it's in a grade-school classroom between the teacher and student, or at the doctoral level between professor and student, a good relationship promotes learning and success."

In addition to the junior-colleague element, the project plan calls for monthly professional seminars at which the participating doctoral students will learn together and engage in group support. "I want them to form relationships with one another," Hester said. "This will help with retention in the program and form networks that can serve these individuals well throughout their professional careers." She noted that she and Robert A. Gable, an ODU eminent scholar and professor of special education, earned their Ph.D.s together at Vanderbilt University, "and we have been friends and colleagues all these years."

Hester said many students drop out of Ph.D. programs in special education, especially when they only can afford to go to school parttime, and that retention strategies will be crucial for the project. The financial incentives that will be made possible by the OSEP grant also are geared to bolster retention.

"I am especially proud to have been awarded this grant because it provides tuition, a stipend and travel monies for doctoral candidates whose concentration is special education," she said.

About 75 percent of the $800,000 will go for doctoral scholar support. "It is anticipated that both financial incentives and the high quality of training and support in the (ODU) program will lead to the recruitment of high quality applicants and the retention of all the project's doctoral scholars," Hester wrote in a summary statement that was part of the proposal submitted to the OSEP.

The project title is "Preparing Academic Leaders to Meet Critical Challenges in Special Education," and the grant runs from spring 2009 through summer 2013. Cheryl Baker, the Special Education Program Chair, is co-principal investigator.

Hester said there are three segments of the project, the first being to develop the recruitment and retention plan for the scholars. This plan must be geared to meet the needs of candidates from culturally and linguistically diverse populations.

The second segment involves administering the doctoral program itself, with the course work, mentoring, research and other aspects tailored to meet the needs of tomorrow's leaders in special education. Specific training will be offered in ways to help teachers communicate and work more effectively with diverse students who have special needs.

Finally, Hester will create a formal means to evaluate the progress and effectiveness of the project.

Hester said the OSEP grant recognizes the "quite remarkable" Darden College special education faculty. She added, "We have a small doctoral program, and by virtue of that smallness, we are able to provide not only the theoretical foundation and content doctoral students need, but more importantly, we are able to build close mentoring relationships with our students. In this way, they learn firsthand what it takes to be a faculty member who can make a difference by their teaching, scholarship and service to the field."

Dana Cho, a student who has just started in the doctoral program, said, "After reviewing several other Ph.D. programs, I chose ODU on the basis of mentorship of professor to student." Another student, Jonna Bobzien, who plans to finish the program this year, added, "Because we had such a small cohort, we had a lot of personal attention and unique opportunities. For example, a classmate and I wrote a book chapter during our first semester of studies and now have an academic publication."

Another Ph.D. student, Colleen Wood-Fields, summed up the special education program as a "challenging but rewarding experience."

Pictured (l-r): Dana Cho, Colleen Wood-Fields, Peggy Hester and Jonna Bobzien. 

This article was posted on: July 16, 2009

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