Fairfield Now - Winter 2007
Endowing the Community
By Steven Scarpa '88
|For Dr. David Zera, associate professor of special education, serving as program director of Project SETTELL is especially satisfying, linking his days as a middle school special ed teacher to his doctoral pursuit of more specialized knowledge to his professional role equipping teachers with skills that serve a noble purpose.|
For more than two years, Fernando Fernandes didn't get much sleep, but that was quite all right with him. He was working toward a bigger goal and rest would just have to wait. By day, he was teaching foreign languages at Bunnell High School in Stratford; at night, he was putting himself through a rigorous course of study in Fairfield University's Graduate School of Education and Allied Professions (GSEAP), preparing for dual certification in special education and bilingual education.
"During that time, I basically didn't have much of a life," Fernandes says with a laugh. Maybe not, but he did find that he was getting a quite an education. Strategies taught in Fairfield's classrooms came to life on the job. Not only was Fernandes becoming more adept as a foreign language teacher, he was also learning to deal with a segment of the student population not normally within his purview. "There are many, many special education students now in regular classrooms," Fernandes says, "and that has changed classroom dynamics."
The program was so positive for Fernandes that his wife, Mercedes, has enrolled for the latest permutation of it. "Now she's the one without a life," he quips.
In July 2007, Fairfield University received a $1.06 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to fund Project SETTELL (Special Education Training for Teachers of English Language Learners). The University has since received $264,698 for 2007-08, the first year of the five-year grant for which more than 400 schools applied.
"This is a prestigious grant and it is really quite well-deserved," says Dr. Susan Franzosa, dean of GSEAP, noting that awards of this nature are usually given to large research universities. It also reflects the orientation of all Fairfield's graduate programs - an effort to meet the needs of the surrounding region for competent professionals in particular fields.
"In Connecticut," says Dr. David Aloyzy Zera, associate professor of special education and program director, "there is a critical need for certified and qualified special and bilingual educators. Through Project SETTELL, we are assured of providing multi-trained professionals for school systems in Bridgeport, Norwalk, Stamford, and beyond that serve children with limited English proficiency and children with special education needs. Those who successfully complete the program will receive one of several advanced degrees and they will be eligible for two certifications from the Connecticut State Department of Education. That is a 'win-win' situation for everyone."
Through Project SETTELL, graduates will develop an expertise in consultation and collaboration, making them important resources to education personnel in creating appropriate programs for both groups of young learners. Included in that expertise will be an understanding of specific technologies that enhance the children's ability to learn and retain their skills. "We want to provide candidates with a background in and knowledge of special education, giving them the roadmaps to identify and differentiate whether problems are based in learning disabilities or learning English as a second language," Dr. Zera explains.
For Dr. Zera, the inspiration to provide these assets to classroom teachers has its roots in his own days teaching special education. In 1978, when he began, the paradigm shift toward inclusion of special needs children in the regular classroom was more than a decade away. In the interim, teachers like him often had to rely on instinct to deal with a given circumstance. "At the time, I didn't know enough about the issues to know what to do about them," he says.
But he was interested, curious, and concerned, so he enrolled at the University of Connecticut in 1994 to pursue a doctoral degree in special education. As he began getting deeper into a study of the what, whys and hows of special education, he began to see connections everywhere in terms of how students learn - neurological, environmental, bureaucratic, and school-based systems all had to be taken into consideration. "It became apparent to me that a big concern in the field of education is the need for students to be diagnosed and assessed appropriately," Dr. Zera says. "I think that's the key. During my doctoral studies, I realized that my calling was to be at an institution of higher learning, training professionals in the field."
Small group discussions are an integral part of Dr. Hyun Uk Kim's graduate course in education, which links theory to practice
by drawing on the experience of its students. Here students share thoughts on the environmental factors that contribute to the
behavior of a child described in a case study.
Twenty-five students, many of whom are teachers in Bridgeport, Norwalk, and Stamford, are currently enrolled in the SETTELL program. A mix of veteran and early-career teachers creates an interesting classroom dynamic, one that benefits everyone. "The seasoned professionals share their practical experience," says Dr. Franzosa. "Then you have the energy of the neophytes who are gung-ho, ready to go out and change the world."
Frank Rodriguez, an administrative intern at West Hill High School in Stamford, gives high marks to GSEAP and the extraordinary opportunities its faculty make possible through their grant writing. When Rodriguez first enrolled, it was to fulfill a state requirement for bilingual certification. He didn't know about a federal grant Dr. Zera was then directing, one offering dual certification in bilingual and special education. "When I learned about the special education piece included in this program, it seemed too good to be true," he says.
Not only was it introducing a new, dynamic way of looking at special education, but many of the skills and strategies taught were also applicable in his regular education setting. "It has already helped me professionally by changing the way I teach ... I have been able to give valuable feedback to parents and colleagues on issues critical to special education and language acquisition," says Rodriguez.
That sentiment clearly pleases Dr. Franzosa, who sees as integral to GSEAP's mission the cultivation of social engagement among its students and the training of professionals who will serve the underserved. "We want to reach out into the community," she says, "to transform into real practice the ideals that call us to be part of a community and remind us that we have a responsibility for each other."
Quite clearly, the mission of GSEAP (and of Fairfield's other graduate programs) is aligned with the overall mission of Fairfield University. It also reflects the thinking of the current strategic plan, one facet of which is inculcating Jesuit values into professional education. "Professional education is appropriately concerned about the development of professional competence," said University President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J., in his 2004 inaugural remarks. "But in a Jesuit setting, professional education is also concerned about integrity - not just the moral integrity of the honest practitioner, but also about the wholeness of the professional as a person concerned about the contribution of his or her profession to the common good."
Fernandes, the language teacher at Bunnell High, learned something he simply didn't expect from the first such program and it had nothing to do with curriculum or instruction. It was empathy. "Today, I'm a little more careful in thinking through where a student is coming from or what he or she might be dealing with, either of which might be at the root of their behavior. I find myself doing it naturally," he says. "It's helped me turn problems into positives, and I feel that I am 10 times a better teacher than I was before."