The U.S. Department of Education has awarded Graduate School of Education Professor Chun Zhang, Ph.D., a $1.25 million grant to train 40 early childhood special education teachers (ESCE) with skills to identify and intervene on behalf of culturally diverse children at risk.
Zhang, a professor of curriculum and education, said cultural misunderstandings can affect a child’s education very early on, particularly those with special needs. In her research, she has outlined cultural and linguistic issues in providing early intervention and early childhood special education services.
Together with project coordinator Emily Marmolejos and field experience mentor Marilyn Bisberg, Zhang secured the funding to address a chronic shortage of qualified early childhood special education teachers as well as to gain knowledge about the communities they serve. This is the third time the project has been funded within the last 8 years.
“Many teachers don’t understand the student’s cultural background and too many parents don’t understand the mainstream expectations,” said Zhang.
Compounded by language issues, Zhang said that American teachers often misdiagnose children as having learning disabilities and/or emotional disturbance, when the behavior in question actually springs from a cultural misunderstanding. Educators need to learn to become cultural translators or brokers in helping bridge the differences and gaps, she said.
The consequence of not having properly trained ESCE teachers, said Zhang, is an underrepresentation of children in early intervention and an overrepresentation in special education, with lower expectations and outcomes for children with disabilities, especially for those from diverse backgrounds.
Zhang said one component of the training is the Addressing the School Readiness Gaps Summer Institute. This five-day Summer Institute provides an in-depth understanding of inclusive classrooms that ensure quality interactions for all young children. The institute serves Fordham’s urban community by providing a platform for the teachers to hear from variety of experts from diverse backgrounds.
“The field keeps changing and the expectations for teachers are getting higher and higher, so we keep adding elements in the curriculum,” said Zhang. “The purpose is to get teachers to meet the special education needs unique to an urban environment, and, hopefully to encourage them to stay in the city.”