Professors from every teacher education program and a handful of state department of education officials sit together in a room, and none of them are strangers. After their meeting, they grab a beer in one of Montana’s many microbreweries. “They all seem to already know each other!” remarks Joseph Harris, a technical assistance (TA) expert from the American Institutes for Research (AIR) who is working with Montana’s state leadership team for CEEDAR. He explains that building trust between members is usually a process that takes some time, but Montana is already a step ahead in this department.
How does this happen?
It is part geography and culture and part intentionality and hard work. Montana is the nation’s fourth largest state by land area, but 48th in population density. Essentially, there is only a handful of teacher preparation programs, so everyone knows everyone. However, the vastness of Montana requires intentionality in forming strategic partnerships to improve outcomes for students with disabilities. That is where the Higher Education Consortium (HEC) comes in.
Susan Bailey-Anderson, currently the lead state education agency official for the HEC, recounted that the creation of the HEC stemmed from the perceived need for “a forum for higher education faculty [in special education] to come together and talk about pertinent issues.” After a series of successful meetings, the group extended an invitation to general education faculty statewide. For the past 20 years, general and special education faculty members have been collaborating to solve pressing issues and forge statewide partnerships.
This April, the HEC will host a speaker on Universal Design for Learning (see CEEDAR’s innovation configuration on this topic). These regular, collaborative meetings have laid a solid foundation for CEEDAR’s intensive TA. However, Tessie Rose Bailey, the current special education faculty lead on the HEC, pointed out that there are benefits of the overlap between general and special education in other facets of reform work. She said that although the HEC only meets twice per year, she is on committees with both general and special educators from the HEC; therefore, the collaboration is fairly constant throughout the year.
Ultimately, the solid framework of the HEC will not only benefit TA in the short run, but will also leverage the work through the HEC for the long term. We anticipate seeing Montana and CEEDAR collaborate to improve education for students with disabilities and provide opportunities for teachers and leaders to learn.