William Paterson University is helping a group of Bergen County preschool teachers better serve their students by providing them the opportunity to earn a Teacher of Students with Disabilities (TSD) endorsement free of charge, thanks to a $135,000 grant from The Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation.
Eight preschool teachers, four who are graduates of the University, started taking courses this summer and are expected to complete the 21-credit program in one year. Half of the teachers work in Hackensack and half in Garfield – districts selected because they serve a diverse student population and families with financial need.
The University’s College of Education initiated this project and secured the grant funding as part of its commitment to develop programs in response to community needs. “The need for this grant -funded initiative is great,” says College of Education Dean Amy Ginsberg, “as increasing numbers of young children attend preschool and teachers with expertise to serve them is necessary.”
“The Foundation is committed to supporting implementation of high-quality State funded preschool in Bergen and Passaic Counties,” says Steven Taub, President of the Taub Foundation. “Early identification of young children with special needs is one of the benefits of preschool.”
“Teachers will be ready to meet the needs of all their students, know right away which ones require special services and with this training have the skills to support them,” adds Judy Taub Gold, a Taub Foundation board member and former teacher.
William Paterson University partners with about 50 area schools, through its Professional Development Schools Network, to share innovative teaching methods and resources based on evidence-based practices. Through that partnership, a WP professor in residence works with each school at least one day per week to help the school meet particular goals. Those professors in residence, Ginsberg says, often field questions about how districts could better adhere to New Jersey Department of Education recommendations to fully integrate special needs students into general education classrooms.
“Preschool classrooms are an amalgamation of young children who may or may not qualify in the future for special accommodations. Thus, preschool teachers must be able to serve all children, creating tremendous need for early childhood educators to be knowledgeable and skilled in serving children with disabilities,” Ginsberg says. “Well before parents and children may be aware of differences in learning, teachers need to be attuned to how to connect with each child.”
Gosia Downes ’17 graduated from WP with degrees in early and elementary childhood education, and has been working as a preschool teacher in Hackensack since. About 1 in 5 of her students, she says, has special needs.
“When I found out about this opportunity to become certified in special education, it was hard to say no, because we have so many students with special needs in our classroom. I was thinking about pursuing this certification on my own, but the cost made me think twice,” Downes says. “At the preschool level, especially, you need to have a special education background. Children come in with so many different needs, and this is their first experience in a school setting.”
The preschool teachers’ coursework, which takes place both on campus and online, includes classes such as Specially Designed Instruction, Managing Challenging Behavior, and Universal Design for Learning and Assistive Technology. The program also requires a supervised clinical internship.
“Additionally, when reviewing district demographics, we noted a high percentage of children in these districts are identified as entering preschool as English Language Learners, and as a result, those children tend to be referred for special education services,” explains Cindy Gennarelli, William Paterson University professor in residence and director of early childhood innovation. Therefore, as part of this project, the University will include lessons on cultural awareness and linguistic preparation.
Nour Faraj ’19 studied education and communication at William Paterson, and after one year as an assistant preschool teacher in Garfield, she was hired this year as a preschool teacher. The district, she explains, requires that she earn a special education certification within four years of being hired, and would cover part of her tuition cost, but not all.
“I think having this certification should be a requirement in every district; it’s very helpful,” Faraj said after completing her first two courses through the grant. “I feel like I understand the children more – they’re coming from different backgrounds and different families. I’m learning about what to look for, and how to handle their behavior, their needs, and their difficulties.”
Grant-funded education will extend beyond the classroom, with University professors offering workshops in both Hackensack and Garfield for preschool students’ parents. Like the preschool classrooms, which are all-inclusive, so will be the workshops, Gennarelli explains. Parents of all types of learners are invited, and professors will teach those parents fun, at-home activities to improve math and fine motor skills. Following each workshop, parents are invited to visit their children in the classroom, to see how topics discussed in the workshop are being embedded into the preschool curriculum.
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