University of Central Florida researchers are starting a new $1.25 million project to address a critical shortage of special education teachers and school psychologists in the state of Florida.
The project, Connecting Enhanced Networks to Reach All Learners (CENTRAL), is funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and will help educators in the state receive enhanced education and preparation.
Program participants will have the opportunity to earn either a master’s degree in exceptional student education or an educational specialist degree in school psychology at little to no cost to them. They will also earn a collaborative intervention specialist graduate certificate.
Project CENTRAL is a continuation of previous work, such as Project Bridges 2.0, which funded education for 56 scholars. The Project CENTRAL team, which is comprised of researchers in UCF’s College of Community Innovation and Education, say they hope to fund just as many or even more this time around.
A key emphasis of the project is enhancing collaboration between special education and school psychology using research and evidence-based practices. The goal is to facilitate high-quality implementation of these practices by program scholars within K-12 schools and to develop interdisciplinary programs that deliver instruction, interventions and specialized services for students with high-intensity needs.
“The scholars accepted into the program take four courses collaboratively, focused on communication, problem-solving, data-based decision-making and evidence-based practices,” says Mary Little, a professor of exceptional student education and principal investigator. “Authentic performance tasks ensure creative solutions and innovative approaches to address current educational issues. We are focused on increasing the quantity of special educators and school psychologists and also the quality of professionals to address the needs for students that have more significant needs through innovative interdisciplinary programming.”
The first cohort of scholars will begin the two-year program in Spring 2023. Federal funds will pay for up to 36 credit hours toward the scholar’s degree program through Fall 2027.
According to data from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), there is a serious and critical shortage of school psychologists to support the needs of school-age children. Recent research indicates there is one school psychologist for every 1,828 students in Florida’s schools. NASP recommends a ratio of 500 students to each school psychologist.
Knowing there is a critical shortage of school psychology and exceptional student education professionals both at the local and national levels, the team worked closely with leaders around the Central Florida area to help co-construct the program to address policies and procedures locally and within Florida. This is especially important because most of these scholars are employed in the 10 school districts within Central Florida, says Dena Slanda, a research associate in the School of Teacher Education and co-principal investigator.
The project will also impact how school psychologists meet the needs of students with behavioral and mental difficulties, says Oliver Edwards, professor of school psychology and co-principal investigator.
“Supporting the mental health needs of students in Florida schools has become a growing concern,” Edwards says. “Vivek Murthy, the nation’s surgeon general, has referenced this as a youth mental health crisis. This led us to propose funding to help prepare school psychologists and teachers to be trained in specific psychosocial and psychoeducational strategies to be more responsive to the needs of students. As a result of being awarded the federal funding, these projects are providing highly trained school psychologists and exceptional student education teachers to Florida schools to mitigate the youth mental health crisis.”
Research conducted as part of the grant provides evidence that specific collaborative training strategies are valuable in developing these highly effective professionals, and the school psychology aspect is a crucial part of this, Slanda says.
“Historically, this program used to be focused just on special education teachers,” Slanda says. “Now, being able to prepare both special educators and school psychologists is really the critical piece moving forward. U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs wanted to make sure that if we are going to have a collaboration of all experts in K-12, there needs to be collaboration in the higher education setting as well.”
The collaboration during personnel preparation will then lead to educators and school psychologists collaborating fluidly when it matters most — with the students in the schools, she says.
“I think the best part is just knowing how many lives we’re going to impact because we had a very similar grant, Project Bridges 2.0, and you don’t ever want to see the work stop,” Slanda says. “Knowing that the work will continue and that we’ll be able to keep moving forward is the best part.”
Educators interested in the program are encouraged to reach out to the Project CENTRAL team for more details.
Edwards is the chair of the Department of Counselor Education and School Psychology. He received his doctorate in school psychology from the University of Florida. Edwards practiced as a school psychologist and district administrator with the School Board of Broward County before joining UCF.
Little received her doctorate in special education from the University of Kansas. She has received almost $30 million in external funding for research and development from federal, state and foundation agencies, including the Institute for Educational Sciences and the Office of Special Education Programs.
Slanda is a research associate in the School of Teacher Education. She received her doctorate in exceptional student education from UCF. She is the project coordinator of multiple grants from the Office of Special Education Programs focused on personnel preparation for special education teachers, school psychologists, and speech-language pathologists.