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Meeting the Needs of All Students

RADFORD -- By the time she was a high school senior, Sharon VanDerlyn knew she wanted to teach students with disabilities; she was already working with such students in her own school. She just needed her guidance counselor’s help in finding a college with a great special education program. The Caldwell, N.J. native wanted to go out of state, and Radford University seemed the perfect choice, an impression confirmed on her first visit.

This fall VanDerlyn began the fifth-year, graduate segment of RU’s five-year program in Special Education: General Curriculum K-12. Because of the work she has done through RU and on her own, when she completes her master’s degree in spring 2010 she will be a highly desirable candidate in a market facing a nationwide shortage.

In her junior and senior years in the program, VanDerlyn got hundreds of hours of classroom practice in field experiences. This past summer, thanks in part to a contact provided by her undergraduate adviser, Kenna Colley, she worked through the Bloomfield, N.J., school system with Christopher Kovacs, a student who has Down syndrome and diabetes. During a six-week period she assisted the student while he gained life skills and experience through jobs in a public library, at a summer recreation camp and in a grocery store. VanDerlyn “gained great experience and put herself in good standing with the school system for the future,” said Colley.

(IN THE PHOTO: RU student Sharon VanDerlyn and Bloomfield, N.J. student Christopher Kovacs.)

“Because of the critical shortage of highly qualified special education teachers,” Colley continued, “we are working hard to recruit students like Sharon: students who are focused on their goals, who are competent and compassionate and who have a desire to create positive change for all students.”

“All students” is a key phrase in RU’s School of Teacher Education and Leadership (STEL). Colley and two other faculty members, Liz Altieri and Leslie Daniel,  are co-directors of Project MERGE, a federally funded initiative to develop an integrated teacher education program. The ultimate goal of the project is to graduate general education and special education teachers who are highly qualified in their content areas and fully prepared to collaborate to meet the needs of all students in a classroom.

Through the MERGE initiative, students in the special education/K-12 program and students in the elementary, middle and high school general education programs take a common core of professional education courses and have opportunities to co-teach during field experiences, with special education and general education faculty partnering as field experience supervisors. Faculty in core academic areas are also collaborating with STEL faculty to ensure that teacher candidates gain appropriate content knowledge.

To VanDerlyn, collaborative co-teaching experiences have been the lifeblood of her teacher preparation. Last year at Montgomery County’s Price’s Fork Elementary School, she co-taught with elementary education intern Lilian Kong, who received her bachelor’s degree in the spring. “Our cooperating teacher, Mindi Walker, was so supportive,” said VanDerlyn. “The three of us worked as a team. We planned lessons together and worked hand in hand in the classroom.” VanDerlyn was back at Price’s Fork this past fall as a student teacher, working with students across grade levels and disability categories.

 “I’ve seen some really great co-teaching pairs,” said VanDerlyn, including an effective secondary model in the science classroom of teachers Jeff Brown and Suzanne Graham at Radford High School, “and the kids respond to it really well. It’s wonderful when general education teachers are open to working with special education teachers. I know it doesn’t go that well in all cases, but that’s part of life — learning to work with all kinds of people.”

Throughout her experiences, RU faculty have been models and mentors. Colley and elementary education professor Dana Rose, who supervised her co-teaching experience at Price’s Fork, “are fabulous,” said VanDerlyn, and special education professor Brenda Tyler “was a wonderful support when I was at Radford High School.”

VanDerlyn wants to put her teaching skills and knowledge to work in New Jersey after she completes her program. “I love Virginia, but New Jersey is my home.”

“That makes us happy,” said Colley. “We are preparing outstanding teachers who can have a positive impact on their own communities.”

To learn more about Project MERGE or about RU’s undergraduate and graduate programs in Special Education: General Curriculum K-12, call (540) 831-6425 or email: (graduate programs in special education) or (five-year undergraduate program in Special Education, General Curriculum K-12).

Feb. 18, 2010
Contact: Kathie Dickenson (

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