A new program in the University of Arizona College of Education will focus on increasing the number of teachers serving K-12 students who are visually impaired, and ensuring those students get the most comprehensive support possible.
Up to 30 students in the college’s special education Master of Arts program who are studying one of three different specialties – visual impairment, severe and multiple disabilities, and orientation and mobility – will participate in the two-year program. The students will collaborate on projects, assignments and other activities to better understand each other’s specialties, with the goal of preparing to more holistically serve their future students’ needs.
The program – called Project COMPASSS, or Culturally Responsive Orientation and Mobility Professionals and Specialists in Sensory and Severe Education – was established with a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Three faculty members from the college’s Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies will lead the program; Garrison Tsinajinie, an assistant professor of practice, is the principal investigator, while associate professor Sunggye Hong and associate professor of practice Stephanie MacFarland are co-principal investigators.
“Teachers who work with visually impaired students address a critical need in K-12 education and ensuring Arizona’s districts can meet that need is part of the university’s role as a land-grant institution,” said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. “I am proud that the U.S. Department of Education is recognizing the expertise at the University of Arizona to train the next generation of special education teachers, and I look forward to the progress Drs. Tsinajinie, Hong and MacFarland will make with this new program.”
Specialists who work with students who have visual impairments support not only those students’ academics, alongside classroom teachers, but also their day-to-day needs. For example, they often partner with orientation and mobility specialists, who can help students who are visually impaired learn how to get around.
Other specialists, such as those who work with visually impaired students who have other severe disabilities, support students with a range of needs that can vary widely, MacFarland said. A student who is visually impaired and uses a wheelchair, for example, might need much different orientation and mobility support than a student who uses a mobility cane or guide dog.
The most effective support for these students comes when specialists collaborate seamlessly on their education plans, Hong said. But because specialists’ skill sets and training are so specific, it doesn’t always work that way.
“What we’re trying to do is give students from these different programs more opportunities to work together and to complete assignments to increase their awareness of other professionals,” Hong said. “We hope that the outcome, when they are placed in schools, is that they will have a more productive and easier time collaborating and providing services as a team to these students who are visually impaired and happen to have other disabilities.”
The program also aims to address a critical shortage – in Arizona and across the U.S. – of teachers who serve students with visual impairments or other disabilities, the researchers said. They pointed to a 2020 report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs, which noted that, in 2017, about 6 million students with disabilities across the U.S. were being served by fewer than 400,000 teachers, 7% of whom weren’t fully certified or otherwise trained to work in special education.
The researchers also noted that Arizona in particular has long faced teacher shortages. The Department of Education listed dozens of school districts in Arizona as among those facing teacher shortages for every school year since 1990-1991 in a 2017 report on national teacher shortages.
“We are proud to deepen our initiatives to train highly qualified teachers who understand the importance of creating inclusive learning spaces that support the success of students with disabilities,” said Robert Q. Berry III, dean of the College of Education. “I am proud that our colleagues in the College of Education, Drs. Tsinajinie, Hong and MacFarland, are leveraging their expertise to meet this tremendous need in K-12 classrooms.”
The program will also include readings and coursework designed to help master’s students understand the diverse cultures and traditions found in communities across Arizona, Tsinajinie said. Those include urban and rural communities, as well as communities on sovereign tribal nations and along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Tsinajinie said understanding diverse cultures and backgrounds is crucial for many specialists, who often travel to different communities to provide their services.
“This will help them be more prepared to work with communities like Indigenous communities in Arizona, so that when they’re traveling across the state and meeting the needs of students, they’ll have some familiarity of best practices to work with those community members and their students,” he said.
When students have multiple disabilities, one disability can often overshadow another when specialists have narrow skill sets, MacFarland said. This program aims to address that challenge so the support can reach more students.
“This type of collaboration and intersection among these types of specialists and teachers is so vital for accessibility and services for our students,” she said. “I think this program really promotes that collaboration and the strength and accessibility of services for all students.”
The program will begin recruiting students this spring. Students interested in enrolling in the program can contact Tsinajinie at firstname.lastname@example.org(link sends e-mail).