Project SPENTT: Reshaping Special Education through Curriculum Reforms

April Giles

This year, UNLV’s Early Childhood, Multilingual, and Special Education (EMS) program successfully concluded Project SPENTT (Severe and Persistent Educational Needs Teacher Training), which sought to redesign learning disabilities (LD) and behavior disabilities (BD) curricula to focus on intensive intervention. This five-year project received federal funding from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) through Part D of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Project co-directors Dr. Joseph Morgan, EMS Department Chair and Associate Professor, and Dr. Monica Brown, EMS Professor, created an intensive training grant packaged into a 1-year master’s program to train licensed special education professionals to implement evidence-based interventions for LD and BD students who were not responding to typical intervention patterns. Proposal and project development was developed in partnership with the Clark County School District and the Nevada Charter Authority, where SPENTT students were recruited.

Project SPENTT was based on Dr. Morgan and Dr. Brown’s theories that some research in the fields of early childhood, multilingual, and special education did not reflect the cultural diversity of our communities and that most teachers are not trained in intensive interventions. In order to address these theories, Project SPENTT aimed to provide educators with the knowledge and skills necessary to be effective in helping LD and BD students achieve positive academic outcomes at all grade levels—especially students from diverse cultural, socioeconomic, and personal backgrounds. “We set out to bridge the research-practice gap and produce dynamic educators capable of contributing to the advancement of knowledge in the fields of early childhood, multilingual, and special education,” Morgan said.

Students in the program were trained on how to be leaders and change agents by learning how to: 1) train and coach other teachers on supporting and bringing about change for LD and BD students; 2) find, learn to read, and translate research into practice; 3) create effective LD and BD interventions; and, 4) create and implement evidence-based practices that meet individual and contextualized needs of classrooms. Throughout the training, it was discovered that action research was a valuable teaching framework for identifying a problem, finding literature to address the problem, and designing an intervention to address it. This discovery resulted from students’ creative work designing individualized and contextualized interventions that could be implemented into practice right away.

Funding for Project SPENTT supported developing and implementing newly designed curricula and hiring graduate assistants in the first year. Years 2 through 5 brought in a total of 48 students (12 students each year), and funding allowed for each student to receive a full academic scholarship that also covered conference attendance expenses. Having completed Project SPENTT, “80% of the 48 graduates reported feeling ready to implement what they learned into practice”, Morgan said. Future educators-in-training will be able to benefit from the fruits of the project as well through a newly designed curriculum available to incoming and future students to study in their master’s programs.