Increasing representation in the field of special education

By Steven Geller

Minnesota faces a dire situation regarding the lack of special education teachers. Normandale Community College has stepped forward to implement an educational pipeline for prospective special education teachers, in particular teachers of color.

SpedUp Program Coordinator Kelsey Johnson, who was hired last spring to coordinate the program, is a champion of diversity and equity in the field of special education. “SpedUP will confront the educational equity gaps in K-12 classrooms by addressing disparities in the composition of the special education workforce,” said Johnson. “This program is particularly appropriate for working adults, who already have full lives.”

The program is designed to recruit and support BIPOC students as they pursue their first two years of a special education degree. It is a cohort model that offers a full academic scholarship (tuition and books), professional development activities, connection to campus resources and proactive academic advising to ensure transfer into a bachelor’s degree program for special education.

“It’s hard working in a system that hasn’t been intentionally built for the success of people who look like me, or are from underserved backgrounds,” says Leticia Alvarez, a current paraprofessional in Bloomington Public Schools and a student in the first SpedUP cohort. “Working in the public-school system, the funding is what it is, and this is a way to add more tools to my toolbox and get paid more.”

Normandale is particularly well suited to provide this pathway, with a strong Education program, well developed transfer partnerships with other universities, a successful program launched in fall 2021 that recruits and supports Black, African American and African men into Elementary and Secondary Education pathways (Sirtify).  Normandale is also one of a handful of two-year colleges in Twin Cities to offer Transfer Pathways in Elementary Education and Special Education, which allows students to transfer to Minnesota State universities where the programs are offered.

Normandale Community College President Joyce Ester believes there is an opportunity for Normandale to do its part in eliminating achievement gaps through providing pathways for BIPOC students to attain a Special Education degree.

“We have a very strong education program, and we feel like this is a great way for us to recruit and support BIPOC students in a field that helps change lives in our community,” Ester says. “There have been studies that indicate when students are taught and supported by people who have the same or similar identities, student success rates are higher. SpedUp is the right opportunity at the right time for a very important field for communities across the state.”

As a program coordinator, Johnson has spent the last six months actively recruiting prospective students, enrolling an inaugural group of students for the first semester of the program.

In the fall 2023 semester, there will be an opportunity for 10 students to participate in the SpedUP program. The program offers full-tuition scholarships for students of color provided by a grant and aims to ensure students’ success at Normandale and beyond.

Alvarez sates, “For me, one of the barriers in coming to school was funding—and so when the SpedUP program became available I was like wow: it’s right here in my community, and the tuition and books are covered. That’s so many barriers gone, and that’s what led me here.”

This article originally appeared here.

Pictured above: Jim Mackinnon, Kimberly Hernandez Xochipiltecalt, Kelsey Johnson, Tania Mejia and Leticia Alvarez

Steven Geller

is director of media and public relations at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minnesota.