Grant to help train teachers of students with visual impairments
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:
"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.
"The experiential, hands-on, real-life activities that promote learning in youngsters with visual impairments require flexible learning environments with low student-teacher ratios."
Florida State University School of Teacher Education