Students work on an exercise during a School of Education class in Opus Hall on November 26, 2018, in Minneapolis.

School of Education Helps Fill Special Education Shortage Areas

As a former kindergarten teacher, Kathlene Holmes Campbell has taught young children of varying abilities. She knows what pivotal roles teachers may play in a student’s life and how vital it is for every child to have access to a quality education. That is why, as dean of St. Thomas’ School of Education, Campbell is passionate about preparing college students for their future profession.

One way St. Thomas is working toward that goal is by offering degrees in critical shortage areas – jobs where it’s hard to find enough qualified candidates to fill vacancies. In Minnesota and nationwide, one of the biggest areas of need is in the field of special education.

Special education serves students who have a disability and require specialized instruction. Disabilities encompass a broad range of needs including mental, physical, social and/or emotional. Special education teachers strive to help children with such disabilities reach their full academic potential by tailoring services and support to each child.

The University of St. Thomas’ School of Education is on the forefront of trying to help fill the special education teacher shortage through multiple program offerings that include special education residencies in local school systems. Along with a Master of Arts in special education, the School of Education is also home to six specialized licenses: academic behavioral strategist; autism spectrum disorder; developmental (intellectual) disabilities; early childhood special education; emotional behavioral disorders; and learning disabilities.

“Special education is not only a local shortage area; there is a state and federal shortage area,” Campbell said. “The fact that we offer all six special education degrees makes us fairly unique. Usually you may find one or two.”

Special education teachers are trained to assess each individual child, leading to the creation of a specific course of action called an individualized education plan (IEP). It is necessary for special education teachers to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to determine a child’s capabilities and needs, then develop relevant, individualized goals and instructional plans.

Lynn Stansberry Brusnahan, special education associate professor who oversees autism programming, agrees about the uniqueness of the School of Education’s array of special education offerings.

“We want to make sure the needs of the students in the state are met, that they have teachers who have an understanding of their disability,” Brusnahan said. “Every student that we prepare at St. Thomas is going to transform lives. That’s an educator.”

Special education teachers aim to identify strengths in children and figure out how to use those specific strengths to bridge gaps and propel them in their education, Campbell said.

“If you go into special education classrooms, one thing that you always notice is there’s a sense of community,” Campbell said. “And you’ll see teachers interacting with kids because you really have to know what sets that child apart. While all teachers need to know their students, with special education it is imperative.”

Campbell says St. Thomas’ mission of “all for the common good” is synonymous with special education. She points out the school is supporting the community’s needs with special education residency programs in both Minneapolis and St. Paul Public Schools. Additional districts are requesting programs as well.

“We’re here to make sure that we’re supporting the community,” Campbell said. “What I love about our special education program is we have almost as many master’s degree students entering in special education as we do in teacher education, and I think that is unique. It is a testament to the faculty here at the School of Education.”