Grant to help train teachers of students with visual impairments

Amy McKenzie

With support from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), a Florida State University education researcher is developing a program to increase the number of teachers possessing the highly specialized skills needed to work with students who are visually impaired.

Amy R. McKenzie, an assistant professor in FSU’s School of Teacher Education, has been awarded a four-year, $1.2 million grant from the DOE to address a "critical need" area in Florida: a shortage of teachers trained to work with visually impaired students ages 3 to 21 as they seek to gain access to the general educational curriculum.

"Teaching children with visual impairments is a very different process from teaching sighted children," McKenzie said. "For sighted children, vision provides a vital foundation for learning, for organizing and for synthesizing the events that make up the world. However, students with visual impairments don’t learn as easily by observing their environment, so they require direct experiences with, and specific instruction about, their world.

"The experiential, hands-on, real-life activities that promote learning in youngsters with visual impairments require flexible learning environments with low student-teacher ratios," she said. "Recruiting teachers to meet these needs, and developing a rigorous evaluation system to ensure that students’ needs are being met, are at the core of our program."

As the only university-based program of its type in the state, Florida State’s Visual Disabilities Program is virtually alone in providing Florida’s schools with teachers who possess the skills to work in the highly specialized field. In fact, the next closest university to offer a program in visual impairments is the University of South Carolina, meaning much of the southeastern United States relies on FSU to help address critical shortages of teachers of students with visual impairments.

"This is a problem of national scope," said Sandra Lewis, a professor in Florida State’s School of Teacher Education and director of the Visual Disabilities Program. "Florida State is one of only three universities in the entire United States that offers education for visually impaired students as an undergraduate degree. So both here in Florida and nationally, we’re not keeping up with the demand created by attrition from teacher retirements and career changes, much less the increased numbers of students in need of these services. Hopefully this grant will enable us to begin to turn the tide."

With the DOE grant, McKenzie, Lewis and other affiliated faculty will pursue five key initiatives:

  • Undergraduate Teacher Preparation. Florida State’s on-campus teacher-preparation program for undergraduates will be reviewed and improved as necessary. In addition, the grant will enable the Visual Disabilities Program to continue offering a two-year course of study leading to a Bachelor of Science degree to a diverse population of undergraduates at the program’s South Florida satellite campus in Miami. Miami-Dade County Public Schools will be a key collaborator in that effort.
  • Support of Interdisciplinary Graduate Teacher Preparation. Graduate students participating in a proposed pre-service personnel program at FSU, the Miami satellite program or via distance education will be required to become a "master" at providing services within another discipline related to the needs of students with visual impairments. Specialized areas may include orientation and mobility, early childhood education services for young children with visual impairments, transitioning planning and services, or meeting the needs of students with visual impairments who have severe and profound disabilities.
  • Systemic Evaluation of Students and Graduates. A rigorous evaluation system will be designed, field-tested and implemented to assess the knowledge and skills of FSU students seeking teacher certification in the area of visual impairments. The evaluation system will include the tracking of student learning during coursework, the use of knowledge and skills during practicum and student teaching experiences, and the tracking of program graduates’ impact on K-12 student learning for five years.
  • Aggressive Recruitment Efforts. A critical element of the grant is the inclusion of a systematic and aggressive recruitment plan designed to target incoming students attending community colleges in Florida that have large enrollments of students from underrepresented groups. The goal is to encourage their participation in the program through financial support.
  • Mentoring Program. The project will improve the outcomes of the graduates of FSU’s Visual Disabilities Program at both the undergraduate and graduate levels by continuing to develop and implement a mentoring program to support the future teachers throughout their training and during their first year of teaching.

"It is our hope that this grant will result in an additional 27 teachers of students with visual impairments who have undergraduate degrees and 33 who have master’s degrees as well as interdisciplinary training in other special education areas," McKenzie said.

In addition to the main FSU campus and the satellite campus in Miami, the Visual Disabilities Program prepares professionals to work with children with visual impairments at the University Partnership Center, located at St. Petersburg College in Seminole.

Since the Program in Visual Impairment was established in 1963, more than 800 individuals have completed certification requirements and/or received a degree in this manner.