New Hires, New Attention, New Investment – Re-imagining Special Education

By Andrew Myers

No matter where you turn in American society, the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc across the spectrum. As a year of online learning has proved all too clearly, education will be an area of intense focus as things slowly begin to return to normal.

On the positive side, with reports that education will see an influx of some 170 billion dollars as part of the Biden Administration’s pandemic relief plan, there has never been a more opportune time to rethink American education top to bottom, says Laurie deBettencourt, a professor who heads special education programs at Johns Hopkins.

For those across the country who will determine how that money is allocated, deBettencourt has a clear message: “Do not forget special education.”

Pointing to the experiences of millions of teachers, students, and parents over last year, deBettencourt says that if observers think the furnace of online learning has been difficult for everyday students, imagine the challenge for special educators and their students. The sector has long been underresourced, even in the best of times, and the unique challenges of the special education classroom only compound the concern.

“Special education is a face-to-face field,” deBettencourt says. “The students need a structured, individualized routine. They need that teacher to greet them. They need to be there in person. And that hasn’t been happening.”

To gauge just how challenging things have been, deBettencourt asked a crew of recent interns to pen brief narratives about their experiences of the past year. “It was traumatic to read those stories,” deBettencourt says.

Nonetheless, despite what would appear a looming catastrophe, the Johns Hopkins School of Education has fared well over the last year. Enrollment is not down or even flat, but up about 8 percent year-over-year. Similarly, deBettencourt recently found herself with the luxury of filling not one but two faculty positions in special education at a time when other schools were amidst freezes. She was flooded with exceptionally well-qualified candidates.

After a long search and deliberations, the department recently announced the hiring of Rebecca Cruz, PhD, and Alexandra Shelton, PhD. Cruz comes to Johns Hopkins after serving a year as an assistant professor at San Jose State, while Shelton was most recently a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Maryland.

Both are researchers as well as special educators. Shelton recently published an analysis of adolescent literacy and teacher professional development. Cruz’s latest study looked at the longitudinal risk of special education placement and intersections of race, ethnicity, culture, identity, and disability in a student’s academic success. Shelton was also a product and remains closely connected to Baltimore-area public schools, which deBettencourt hopes will broaden the program’s partnership opportunities in the community, possibly, she says, in conjunction with the Bloomberg School of Public Health, to study and address some of the social, emotional, mental health issues exposed by the pandemic.

The ultimate goal, however, is to attract and train more special educators to fill the widening gap in need in special education classrooms across the country. deBettencourt has hopes that the increased attention on and incoming dollars for special education will lead to higher salaries and increased educational opportunities. That change, in turn, should bring more people into a field that provides considerable rewards for educators beyond a paycheck, namely in the lasting impact on the lives of students who are often lost in the shuffle.

“We are focusing on bringing on faculty as a conduit to training more special educators,” deBettencourt says of the choice to focus on hiring over enrollment. More faculty will lead to more special educators placed into the communities where they are most needed.

“This moment in time is our chance to re-imagine everything about special education training,” deBettencourt says.