Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi’s new special education degree program will aid in a better future for our teachers, students and community.
Expanding & Enriching A Profession
Being a perpetually persistent advocate for special education teachers and students in South Texas comes naturally for Dr. Phyllis Robertson, chair of Curriculum, Instruction and Learning Services and associate professor of special education at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (TAMU-CC); she has been doing it for more than 33 years. She has seen it all, and knows firsthand the ever-present paradigm of having too few special education teachers available to teach and support the needs of students with disabilities.
But Robertson has been on a mission — to shift that long-standing paradigm. And she is taking a giant step forward to do just that with a new special education degree program set to begin this fall at TAMU-CC.
“We have been working on implementing a teaching degree in special education for the past three years, and now it is about to happen,” Robertson explained. “I don’t think people remember or realize that for the past 40 years — until the passage of HB 3217 in 2019 — we did not even have a teaching degree, much less a special education degree, available in Texas.” Prior to the passage of that bill, degrees in “interdisciplinary studies” were available for future teachers, but there was no degree available for teachers to be placed on a professional level for one of the most important jobs there is: teaching our children.
“With this new special education degree, we are expanding and enriching the profession by offering an elevated educational opportunity for our aspiring teachers,” Robertson said. “We are also providing expanded support in our community for our teachers and our students.”
Jennifer Arismendi, E.D., chief instructional support officer for Corpus Christi Independent School District (CCISD), agrees. “We definitely have a shortage of special education teachers currently in CCISD,” Arismendi said candidly. “There are 300 special education teachers across the district, and we have 40 vacancies, which we are doing everything we can to fill. In many school districts, ours included, we are seeing an increase in special needs students for a myriad of reasons.” Some of those reasons include improved awareness, increased screenings and diagnosis and service accessibility, as well as a broader definition of disability and greater identification of girls with learning disabilities.
Historically, according to Robertson and Dr. Ashley Voggt, assistant professor in special education at TAMU-CC, “It has been a much tougher road to earning a certification in special education. It took longer, was harder [and] more expensive and community support within a school setting was often minimal at best, resulting in a high incidence of burnout.” But with this new degree, Robertson and Voggt are determined to alter the trajectory of this uphill climb and leave those major degree hurdles in the dust.
First, the special education degree plan requires a minimum of 121 semester credit hours — only four hours more than a general teaching degree. The degree differential is reflected in the inclusion of 33 of those hours being specifically dedicated to special education. Secondly, to ease incoming students’ economic pressure, four special education scholarships will be offered this fall, covering the bulk of tuition. And third, once these degreed special education teachers are placed in schools, Robertson and Voggt say they will be able to work with school districts to create community for these teachers by establishing co-teaching situations within an all-inclusive classroom experience.
“We believe,” explained Robertson, “this degree will prepare teachers to serve students with a wide range of needs all the way from pre-K through high school and as they transition into secondary education, employment and community living.
“Students with disabilities are all different. Even students with the same diagnosis have varying needs; they are definitely a heterogeneous group. If you have met one student with autism, you have met one student with autism.”
A Stronger Community for All
Each student with a disability or disabilities is unique and should have an opportunity to learn in a common instructional setting. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), passed by Congress in 1975, ensures that fact and requires public schools to offer special education services for all students with disabilities from birth to 21 years of age. But even with the Disabilities Act in place for almost 50 years, within a school there is often still one strikingly missing piece for special education students and teachers — a community.
“Most people are not aware of the fact,” said Robertson honestly, “special education students are the only students who are still allowed to legally be segregated within a school. They are often ‘siloed,’ as they are not included in general school programs and teachers do not have a support system or connections with their co-workers within the schools. We believe with this new degree we can alter that dynamic and keep our special education teachers doing what they love to do, teach.”
Not surprisingly, Robertson and Voggt — two women of obvious persistence — have a plan to accomplish that goal as well. “One of the ways we are planning on doing that,” explained Voggt, “is by having co-teachers within a single classroom. With a general degreed teacher and a special education degreed teacher, you can integrate special education children within a general classroom, creating a support system for teachers and a culture of caring and learning for all children.”
The Bright Future Ahead
Many school districts, like CCISD, are already firm believers in a culture of inclusion, and those in leadership and instruction understand the importance of special education students and teachers being an integral part of the school community.
“In addition to having access to education itself, we believe special education is all about inclusion and tolerance,” said Melissa Guerra, Ed. D., senior director for special education at CCISD, “and this new degree is huge in all those aspects for our district, our teachers and our students. By adding more qualified special education teachers in our schools, we can see increased possibilities for co-teaching and collaboration; it is an excellent way to be able to put all of the pieces together.”
Currently, under the special emphasis program, TAMU-CC graduates 15 special education teachers a year; their goal is to increase that number in the next seven years to 37 special education teachers annually. And according to Robertson, every one of those teachers has a job waiting.
“We don’t see a student who graduates without a job. There is no doubt in my mind that this degree will elevate teaching for the teachers, their students and our community,” Robertson said. “With better-prepared teachers, there is more likelihood they will stay. And,” she said, once again reflecting her perpetual persistence, “this is not going to happen overnight, but we believe if you send out just one better-prepared teacher, that is a game changer.”