Course supports District students with disabilities

Since freshman Zoe Pierce was diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in high school, it’s been a struggle to find teachers and classmates who could empathize with her schoolwork troubles.

It wasn’t until she was working with high school students who have learning disabilities in a new special education course at GW that she discovered she had the ability to provide the support system she rarely had.

“I was talking with [one of] the students, and she asked, ‘Does it get better?’ ” Pierce said. “I remember sitting in a classroom and asking that same question. For the ones that push themselves and have people to help them, it does.”

Ten undergraduates have come face-to-face with students in special education programs in high schools across the D.C. area for first time this semester, and are working as mentors for the high schoolers’ transition into the adult world.

The course – geared toward psychology and human services majors – is co-taught as part of the Career Investigations for Transitioning Youth program by professor Juliana Taymans and research assistant Lindsey Anderson in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development’s special education and disability studies department.

While the CITY program is in its fifth year at GW, this is the first semester it paired students with high school students who have disabilities.

With the help of their mentors, the high school students will link up with departments at the University to shadow jobs, allowing the participants to gain career experience. The students might follow a librarian who shelves and checks out books, for example, or learn how to process mail at package services. The hope is that successful job shadowing will lead to long-term internships, Taymans said.

One of the challenges of the shadowing process is educating employers about the students who will be working with them, senior Mario Grant said. Students met with each employer to share background on the high schoolers’ disabilities to ensure that the work they will be doing at each site is appropriate.

“Once they have exposure, they can recognize what a field requires them to do,” Grant, who worked with students from Anacostia High School, said. “That will help them get some more perspective on what they’re interested in.”

For senior Dhiren Shetty, whose 24-year-old sister is developmentally delayed, the course has hit home.

“As my sister got older, I learned about the difficulties she’d encounter in the real world,” he said. “We often think that people with disabilities have a hard time or that they’re not going to college. But from the experience I’ve had [in this class], the students aren’t much different from us.”

School districts across the country have struggled with shortages of special education teachers for decades, and full federal funding has languished for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, shifting costs for special education to states and school districts. A 2008 Department of Education report showed an 11.2 percent gap in the supply of highly qualified special education teachers.

“Nationally, we need to pay more attention to that,” Pamela Leconte, the coordinator for GSEHD’s Transition Special Education Master’s Program, said. “We’d like to see the CITY program replicated with other universities. The more people we can get to do that, the better.”

While the graduate school, which was ranked No. 42 by U.S. News & World Report this month, has always zoned in on special education, the undergraduate component was an added bonus, Leconte said.

“I like that the class helps find a home for the CITY program,” Anderson added. “There’s now a small community of people who recognize the importance of supporting students with disabilities. It’s an opportunity for these students to have mentors and role models.”

The course has had the same effect for some students. Senior Ashley Gomez’s goal has always been to work as a child therapist for abused minority children, but said the course has expanded her job aspirations.

“Now, with the positive feedback I’ve gotten from Dr. Taymans about my work, I can feel myself starting to expand my idea of what my career will be. Maybe I’ll look into special education,” Gomez said.

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