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News from Across Virginia

Hampton City Schools Support their Special Education Teachers though Initiatives Aligned with the VCU-ACE Grant

Special education teachers who serve students with significant needs face many challenges. Often, they lack opportunities to collaborate, share ideas, and problem solve with other professionals. This missing interaction makes it difficult to share ideas and gain new insights. Hampton City Schools realized these challenges and implemented a two-prong initiative to support this population of teachers. The first part of this initiative was the development of Collaborative Learning Teams for self-contained special education and preschool teachers. These groups of teachers meet quarterly to discuss specific evidence-based practices that can be beneficial to any student included in their classrooms.

The second part of this initiative was implemented as an effort to share materials in between these quarterly meetings. Hampton City Schools Special Education Coordinator, Charlotte Brookes, created a page on the Hampton City Schools Special Education webpage that houses curriculum resources, VDOE updates, lesson-planning templates, data collection sheets, and division announcements. As more initiatives were implemented though the VCU-ACE partnership, this was an organic step that provided teachers with a wealth of information and resources. Recently, this webpage was expanded to allow teachers to add resources. Since then, teachers have added extensive data collection sheets and pictures of specific evidence-based supports being utilized in classrooms in Hampton City. Hampton City Schools have been supported for the past three years by Noel Woolard, VCU/ACE Technical Assistant Associate.


VCU-ACE Pilot Program Makes Advanced Impact in Pre-School Classrooms

Students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often need greater amounts of structure and direct, systematic instruction. As part of its mission, VCU-ACE Training and Technical Assistance Associates are working in classrooms of preschool-aged children across the state to enhance the skills of preschool teachers. This pilot program is currently taking place in two VA school divisions, Richmond County and Henrico County.

VCU-ACE is implementing a pilot program in a Richmond County preschool classroom. ACE team members are working with the preschool teacher to enhance the focus on communication and social skills. ACE team members have created a new outlook on how the special education teacher can develop successful individual plans for preschool students with ASD to enhance receptive communication, expressive communication, spontaneous language, and social skills.

A focus is placed on coaching the teacher and paraprofessional on implementing strategies with fidelity and delivering instruction throughout the entire school day. The Training and Technical Assistance Associates collect and analyze data, observe, and work with the children and staff to make informed decisions. This steadfast support results in successful collaboration with improved communication instruction where the students thrive and grow.

Expressive and receptive communication skills are targeted through systematic instruction using discrete trials. Spontaneous language and social skills are then targeted through natural environment teaching. Students with limited language skills are encouraged to expand vocabulary by learning nouns, verbs, adjectives, and prepositions among others. Sequencing, which is crucial to the development of logic and critical-thinking skills, as well as story telling are also targeted. The pictures and items are representative of the children's daily experiences. These are all skills they will be able to use and implement in their day to day lives.

VCU-ACE is also working together with preschool teachers and the Autism Team in Henrico County Public Schools (HCPS). The project is customized to meet the needs of the six self-contained autism classroom teachers. The HCPS Autism Team wanted to ensure that students transitioning from preschool to kindergarten had received best practice instruction for them to move into a least restrictive placement for kindergarten. To make this happen, baseline data had to be collected where areas of improvement existed. Using the Autism Program Environment Rating Scale (APERS©) , the teams of HCPS Autism Staff and VCU-ACE team members observed in the classrooms and provided teachers feedback on eleven programmatic domains: Learning Environments, Learning Environment Structure/Schedule, Positive Learning Climate, Assessment and IEP Development, Curriculum/Instruction, Communication, Social Competence, Personal Independence and Competence, Functional Behavior, Family Involvement, and Teaming.

The evaluation team took a very supportive approach when disseminating information about the results to increase staff commitment. The mission of this initiative was to bring all classrooms up to a higher standard, not to be critical towards teachers. At first, this valued group of Early Childhood Special Education Teachers was anxious about having two to three observers score their classroom based on just a few hours’ experience. After coaching began fears were alleviated when teachers and instructional assistants reaped the benefits of fine tuning their current practices and implementing new strategies.

This project will continue into next year in order to provide professional development and coaching on priority goals. The post-intervention measures will be administered in late May to assess the effectiveness of the initiative. Anecdotal reports thus far are yielding improvements in the use and fidelity of evidence-based practices.


VCU offers a Post-baccalaureate Certificate in Autism Spectrum Disorder!

The increase in students with ASD in public schools has resulted in a demand for effectively trained educators, parents, and service providers. The Department of Special Education and Disability Policy at VCU has designed a Post-baccalaureate Certificate in Autism Spectrum Disorder Program to prepare participants to educate and support individuals with autism spectrum disorder in the educational setting from early intervention through adult services. The course sequence enables participants to develop inclusive knowledge and experience in assessment, teaching strategies, and curriculum development. This program is geared toward, special and general educators, but is also appropriate for caregivers, and individuals who want to gain knowledge and a solid understanding of ASD.

More information about this program can be found on the VCU School of Education website.


Students with disabilities ACE-IT at VCU - VCU places students with disabilities in standard classes

In 2010, Virginia Commonwealth University was one of 27 universities across the U.S. to receive funding for a 5-year demonstration grant from the federal US Department of Education, Office of Postsecondary Education. ACE-IT in College is a collaborative effort between the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center (RRTC) and the Partnership for People with Disabilities in the VCU School of Education. ACE-IT in College provides an inclusive, on campus, college experience for young adults with intellectual disabilities. The main outcome of the program is competitive employment in an area of interest for students which is developed through VCU coursework, internships, and employment. Please visit the ACE-IT in College website to meet the students, hear from faculty and families, and learn more about this comprehensive program.

More information:

Students with disabilities ACE-IT at VCU - VCU places students with disabilities in standard classes February 4, 2014 BY KARIN KAPSIDELIS Richmond Times-Dispatch


Working Smarter Not Harder – The Benefits of Professional Learning Communities

Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) are becoming more commonplace within many school divisions as school personnel strive for improvement and to keep up with the demands of an ever-changing educational landscape. The characteristics of successful PLCs include: collaboration, desire to learn, willingness to take on tasks to increase group learning, respecting and valuing the opinions of colleagues, and a drive to grow professionally. Being a part of a PLC can have many benefits. It can reduce feelings of isolation and enhance understanding of content material and evidence-based practices used with students with autism spectrum disorder. It can also result in strong collegial bonds between co-workers.

Over the past 2 years, several of the divisions in which VCU-ACE Technical Assistance Associates are embedded have implemented a variety of PLCs to meet the professional development needs of their educational staff who serve children and youth with ASD. These groups were initially jointly led by VCU- ACE and division staff; however, divisions have now taken over total responsibility to sustain and even expand them. PLCs are located in the all of our divisions: Botetourt, Wise, Newport News, Hampton, Henrico, Greensville, Richmond, Arlington, and NNRSEP. A few highlights from selected divisions include:

Two PLCs are available for participation in Newport News. The first targets social skills and social competence at the middle and high school level. A team of approximately 10 teachers and specialists get together to discuss social skill lesson planning and special events, and to problem solve social skill issues present for many adolescents with ASD. The second PLC addresses evidence-based practices (EBPs). This group of educators works diligently to develop materials, train other staff, and provide support to others who teach individuals with ASD.

Henrico County is developing social skills classes for students with ASD at the middle school level. The two pilot programs implementing this intervention have developed a PLC to provide information to assist other educators to develop similar programs.

In Greensville, autism specialists have developed a paraprofessional PLC to provide training and an opportunity for paraprofessionals to problem solve and learn new strategies and practices for working with students with ASD.

Arlington City has developed a PLC to support the use of both a Social Skills Inventory and the use of assistive technology for their Speech Language Pathologists.

The consensus among all VCU-ACE divisions is that Professional Learning Communities provide a venue for collaboration, training, and problem solving. In addition, there is great value in collaborating with other professionals who share a given situation and similar interest. In the case of educators serving students with ASD, the PLC model has allowed people who are interested in a specific topic (e.g. social skills, evidence based practice, communication) to develop their skills in collaboration with their peers.


Virginia Autism Research Survey Announced!

Research Study: The Impacts of Access to the Least Restrictive Academic Environment for Academic and Career Goal Attainment for Students with High Functioning Autism as Reported by their Parents.

Being conducted as part of dissertation research, this study is an investigation into how access to inclusive educational environments may or may not impact the academic and career goal attainment of high school student's with high functioning autism and Asperger syndrome in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Please visit the facebook page of Virginia Autism Research for more information. This is a statewide effort so anyone, especially in the regions of the Commonwealth that may not have a support structure, are encouraged to participate in this study.

Click here for the link to the survey.
Two $75 Target gift cards will be raffled off to parents who complete a questionnaire.

Contact Laura Harris, MEd., PhD(c), Division of Special Education and disAbility Research, George Mason University at for more information.


Henrico County Public Schools and VCU-ACE Initiate Preschool Assessment and Support Project

In their second year of embedded Technical Assistance (TA), Henrico County Public Schools (HCPS) staff turned to VCU-ACE TA
Associates to seek guidance on evaluating and improving quality within their preschool ASD program. Currently, this program consists of six self-contained classrooms distributed across the division. The students from these classrooms feed into their zone programs with the goal of needing less intensive supports on arrival. The critical areas of improvement desired were increased independence with self-care skills, functional communication, and instructional control (the ability to follow simple directions, attend to teacher, and sit at a table for academic tasks.)

The Henrico County staff became inspired during the Community of Learning in Autism (CoLA) Summer Institute when they attended the session presented by Newport News Public Schools (NNPS) and VCU-ACE staff discussing how that division had worked the previous year on an all-school wide effort to assess their self-contained classrooms for students with ASD utilizing the Autism Program and Environment Rating Scale (APERS). This tool lends itself quite well to examining various domains of a classroom in order to strategically plan for targeted professional development and intervention.

HCPS and VCU-ACE Technical Assistance staff have spent the first part of this school year observing each of the six preschool classrooms and gathering information from teachers, paraprofessionals, related services staff, and parents. Staff have noted that it has been a pleasure to spend so much time with each teacher and to get to know all of the incredible young students in the program. The process is currently in the analysis phase, and the next steps are to roll out the results with all ASD preschool staff, create individualized training and coaching plans for each teacher in areas in which they chose to focus, and to provide other training opportunities to various staff on targeted evidence-based practices.

The positive effects of this robust project will expand into HCPS elementary schools and beyond as these students with higher levels of independence and pre-academic skills will be able to reach their maximum potential in future grades. Kudos to Henrico County Public Schools for making such a difference for their students with Autism!


Great News for VA in the Area of Early Screening and Diagnosis of ASD!

The Partnership for People with Disabilities at Virginia Commonwealth University recently received funding for a project titled "Autism Spectrum Disorder Screening and Diagnosis: Early Systematic Training in Effective Practices (ASD Early STEP)." The grant project is a collaborative effort with the Partnership, VCU-ACE, and Commonwealth Autism Service. The project provides three years of funding to train professionals who serve young children, including early interventionists, pediatricians, and others, in three state locales. Family members of children suspected of having ASD will also receive training and support. VCU-ACE is excited be a part of this grant opportunity!


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