By Jess Scanlon
Spain is the country of the conquistadors, Don Quixote and, most recently, of the first short-term study abroad opportunity for students studying special education.
The special education program was developed through Rider’s partnership with the Universidad de Alcala, a university near Madrid. This program spanned from May 30 to June 18 and provided an opportunity for Rider students to receive credit for a short-term international experience.
Michele Wilson Kamens, a Professor of Education, helped to develop the program because of the difficulties education majors face in attempting to study abroad. New Jersey’s requirements for licensure include the completion of a four-year education program at a regionally accredited university, passing the Praxis exam and field work to obtain certification to teach in New Jersey public schools, according to the State of New Jersey’s Department of Education. This list of requirements makes studying abroad essentially impossible for many education majors.
However, this summer there was a new short-term study abroad option for student teachers. Twelve students took advantage of the chance to spend approximately two weeks in Spain. The bulk of the trip was spent in Madrid, visiting schools and agencies that deal with special education.
The Rider students and professors who traveled to Spain also received some education while there. Only two members of the group spoke Spanish, allowing the rest to see what it is like to be in a country where they do not speak the primary language.
“With all of the requirements for teacher licensure, it is difficult for students in education programs to study abroad,” said Wilson Kamens. “However, global awareness is an important skill for everyone.”
Despite its length, Kamens feels the opportunity was highly beneficial for the students.
“The Rider preservice teachers who participated in this experience learned so many things — about Spain, about education, about special education, and themselves,” she said. “This will be a part of them forever, and they will have enriched perspectives as they enter the field of education and become teachers.”
Education Week defines special education as pertaining to “educational programs that serve children with mental, physical, emotional and behavioral disabilities.”
Of the approximately 48 million children in the public school system, over 5.8 million received special education services, according to a U.S. Department of Education estimate. This means that about 10 percent of the school age population is in some form of special education.
Despite the economy, the field of education is constantly growing. The School of Education, a division of Rider’s College of Liberal Arts Education and Sciences, offers a special education minor for students interested in pursuing it as a career path.
These students are placed in special education environments allowing them to improve their teaching skills before formally entering the field, giving them valuable experience.
“It’s more important than ever to know how to help special needs students,” said Jennifer Fanders, a junior elementary education and English major, who has done field work in local elementary schools.
Fanders goes on to say that although she has no specialization in special education, she anticipates teaching students who fall into this category due to the trend toward inclusion, or having such students integrated into the classroom instead of excluding them from the average public school classroom.
Kamens agrees with this option, explaining that the rise in inclusion of special needs students in regular classrooms is due to both the changes in societal attitudes and the ability to diagnose students who would have previously not been labeled as needing special education.
Today the majority of special needs students are taught in the public school system. This is due to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a piece of legislation originally passed in 1975 and was last updated in 2004, that mandates school districts to provide all students with an education, including making accommodations for special education.
Kamens said these accommodations are similar to those in Spain, whose laws agree with IDEA, stating that everyone should be concerned with providing the best education for all students.
All in all, Kamens is grateful for all that students were able to gain from the trip.
“It was an outrageously wonderful opportunity,” she said.