In the Pasco School District, about 12% of the K-12 population is either served by an IEP or is eligible for special education. (The national count is about 13%, according to the NCES report.) That’s about 2,100 students, says Tracy Wilson, the executive director of special services for this Washington state school system. And while 15% to 18% of those students attend full-day programs, the rest are in general-education classrooms a “significant amount of time.”
In 2015, during the national conference for the Council for Exceptional Children, Wilson did some exploring in the vendor fair and learned about the Exceptional Child Online Professional Development System from Vector Solutions. “We’re always looking for top-quality professional development training [delivered] in a meaningful, effective and somewhat economical way,” she explains. Although the district often brings in expert trainers and consultants for face-to-face PD, she notes, “if you’re on vacation, you’ll miss that training.” Exceptional Child’s online format appealed to Wilson. “Everyone has internet. Everyone has a smartphone. Everyone has Wi-Fi,” she says. With online PD, “someone could pick a course, watch it and take a quiz at the end so you know they’ve completed it.”
More important, Wilson points out, those who want to do individual learning can; they can get their training “on demand, complete it and submit it for PD hours.” Others prefer to learn as a group. In those cases, she says, “we’ll select courses and do them together as a group.” Oftentimes, the courses include support documents that help guide conversations.
Now the district is starting its third year of expansion with the program. Initially, Wilson chose to share the courses with other administrators and the educational specialists and coaches in her department. She broadened that to include some of the expert teachers in special education to get their input, particularly about the level of quality, and to back up her sense that other teachers would benefit from the online PD. The feedback: The Exceptional Child courses are “supportive and engaging.”
Wilson is especially impressed by the level of expertise behind the development of the program. Exceptional Child references some of the best practitioners in the field, such as Kent Gerlach, who does PD for paraprofessionals, and Carol Gray on autism. By working with experts who are well known in the field of special education, she says, the PD brings credibility.
To confirm the decision, she compared Exceptional Child’s catalog with the offerings from another vendor. “With the other one, you had to read the information, answer a question, read information, answer a question,” she says. “It was a little more expensive, and it was much less engaging.”
The length of the courses also played a role in Wilson’s decision. The Exceptional Child sessions run between 20 and 60 minutes. “It’s not like a two-hour training, where you have to sit for the whole thing.”
Until recently, the training was accessible only to the special-education teaching group. “We have a lot of new staff â€” new teachers working with general-education teachers,” Wilson notes. What has surprised her is how much interest has come from “those who have been practicing in the field for a long time who want to keep up [and] brush up on their skills.”
But now it’s time to grow the access, she adds. “This year my goal is to expand to the [general-education] classroom teachers.” Her ambition: To get a hundred teachers out of the 1,100 in the district to use the training resources during the new academic year. As part of that initiative, Wilson and her team will curate the content and pull together “small packages of courses, depending on the disabilities or what the teachers’ interests are and make it accessible to more staff.”
Choosing online PD from a provider with a catalog of subjects that’s constantly increasing brings a level of flexibility and personalization to the teacher training that hasn’t existed before at Pasco. “We’re a district that’s growing and hiring lots of new staff,” says Wilson. “
Along with other school districts, Pasco is learning the appeal of using online PD to keep its special-services team on target. Soon the system’s general-education teachers will be able to get the foundational training they want, too, in these specialized topics.
“I don’t think online modules will ever replace face-to-face 100% of the time,” Wilson concedes. “But I think it works great to support our learning.”