Special Education & Disability Policy Program expanding with new RTPA Scholars

This January the Research to Disability Policy Advocacy (RTPA) Cohort grew from having two full-time and two part-time students to having four full-time students with an additional four part time students. RTPA is a five-year leadership grant awarded to Dr. Colleen Thoma for students interested in becoming university faculty in special education with experience in disability policy. The programs focus is to give scholars the opportunity to work with disability policy at the local, state and national levels and understand the implications of national and state policies on the education of children and youth in high-need urban settings. Below are the current members of the RTPA cohort looking to further their knowledge in disability policy.


Irina Cain, M.Ed. is a Graduate Assistant. Her research interests include supporting students’ transition to adulthood, evidence-based practices, postsecondary outcomes, with an emphasis on residential choice, and secondary data analysis. She has previously taught students with various disabilities in grades 2-15. She graduated with a Master’s in Special Education from University of Mary Washington.

evandra catherine

Evandra Catherine is currently working as Director of Community Engagement for VCU’s Department of African American Studies.  She previously worked as a management analyst for the City of Richmond. She currently serves on the Special Education Advisory Council for Richmond Public Schools, United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg Young Leaders Society steering committee, United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg Education Action Council, VCU’s African American Alumni Council treasurer, and Advisory Board to VCU’s Presidents Action Group for Diversity and Inclusion.  She received her BA from Virginia Commonwealth University and MPA from Strayer University.  Her research interests include teacher’s perception of students on Autism spectrum, disproportion of Black males in special education, and special education in urban schools.

allison daguilar

Allison D’Aguilar, M.Ed, is a graduate student in the Research to Policy Advocacy Program and a trainer for the Leadership for Empowerment and Abuse Prevention project at the Partnership for People with Disabilities. Her research and policy interests include expanding inclusive postsecondary education opportunities for students with disabilities. Allison is currently researching inclusive higher educational opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities. Specifically, the development of literacy interventions leading to improved employment and adult life outcomes for youth and adults with ID. Mrs. D’Aguilar has taught as a special educator and reading specialist at the PreK-12 levels in urban and suburban school districts.

tonya gokita 2

Tonya Gokita, M.Ed. taught ESL in Japan for over 12 years. Currently, she serves as the Special Education Department Chair at Warhill High School in Williamsburg where she has been teaching English for the last 3 years. Her areas of research interest are constantly developing and include twice-exceptionality, post secondary transition for at-risk students, cultural and linguistic representations and comparisons in special education, and academic, social and behavioral interventions for secondary students. Ultimately, she intends to use her research to influence and affect policies that will improve outcomes for students with disabilities, their families, and educators.  She is very excited to begin her studies at VCU.

gabrielle pickover

Gabrielle Pickover is currently working as a special education teacher at Gladys H. Oberle School in Fredericksburg, Va.  Gladys H. Oberle is a private day school for students who have difficulty attending public school.  She previously worked as a special education teacher for Spotsylvania County Schools for 6 years and as an Education Coordinator at Snowden of Fredericksburg (psychiatric hospital) for 2 years.  She received her BA from Mary Washington College and her M. Ed. from Virginia Commonwealth University. Her research interests include mental health support, behavior management interventions, community involvement and policy development.

lauren puglia

Lauren Puglia, M.Ed. is a full-time PhD student in the Special Education & Disability Policy department. Her research interest include transition outcomes for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, transition and policy; as well as has an interest in seeing how assistive technology can improve transition outcomes. Before beginning the program, Lauren taught students with severe and multiple disabilities in Stafford County Public Schools for three and a half years. Lauren also served as head coach for the high school swim team.  Lauren obtained her Master’s in Special Education, with an Autism Certificate from the University of Mary Washington as well as her Bachelor’s in Elementary Education & Special Education from Millersville University of Pennsylvania.

joshua taylor

Joshua Taylor, M.Ed. is a training associate for Virginia Commonwealth University’s Autism Center for Excellence. His research interests include social skills, cognitive-behavioral strategies, inclusion, community integration, educational technology, universal design for learning, learning science, and research-to-practice. He also works as an educational advisor and contract teacher for the Smithsonian Institute in the All Access Digital Arts Program—a technology and arts-based program that emphasizes social inclusion in museum settings for students with various cognitive and intellectual disabilities—and Morning at the Museum—a program to increase the accessibility of museums for children with autism, cognitive and sensory disabilities. He was previously an Autism Specialist in Arlington Public Schools, where he trained and coached teachers of students with autism spectrum disorders, grades Pre-K through age 22.  His previous classroom experience includes supporting the inclusion of students with autism in a high school setting and teaching middle school students with significant adaptive needs in a self-contained setting. He graduated with a Master’s in Special Education from the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education.


Vivian Vitullo, M.Ed. is currently the Special Education Supervisor for Newport News Public Schools and has been a special education teacher for many years. Her research interests include students with disabilities who have experience or are experiencing trauma and the impact on teachers perception & online learning for students with disabilities. Vivian is excited to be a part of the RTPA program.

weade wallace 2

Weade Wallace, M.Ed. is the Executive Director at Advocates for Justice and Education, Inc., (AJE). AJE is a non-profit organization providing individual advocacy, training and legal representation to families of children and youth with disabilities in the District of Columbia. Weade has been involved in the special education field for nearly 8 years. Her research interests include effective family-school partnerships to best serve culturally and linguistically diverse students in special education and secondary transition and post-school outcomes of students with intellectual disabilities. Upon completion of the RTPA program she hopes to use her PhD in many ways including contributing to the field as a researcher and university faculty. She intends to work at the national level to inform policies that will ensure an equitable and quality education to students with disabilities.  Weade also loves to travel and experience different cultures and is currently planning a trip to Tokyo.

holly whittenburg

Holly Whittenburg is the Virginia Commonwealth University Rehabilitation Research and Training Center’s site coordinator for the Bon Secours Maryview Medical Center Project SEARCH program. Her research interests include transition planning and practices for young adults with autism. Before joining VCU’s RRTC, Holly worked as an employment specialist for Eggleston Services, a special education teacher in the York County School Division, and a special education coordinator for Hampton City Schools. Holly holds a BA in Sociology from the University of Virginia, a master’s degree in Special Education from the College of William and Mary, and a master’s degree in Educational Leadership – Administration and Supervision from the College of William and Mary. She also possesses a Post Baccalaureate Certificate in Autism Spectrum Disorders from Virginia Commonwealth University and is a Virginia endorsed positive behavior support facilitator.


Cassandra Willis is currently working as an Associate Principal in Henrico County Public Schools.  She previously worked as a Special Education Teacher, Title I Teacher, Math Coach and a Division Math Specialist in 2 divisions. She received her BA from University of VA, Masters and Post Graduate Certificate from Virginia Commonwealth University.  Her research interests include Interventions in the Public Schools, African American males and Behavior, and policy development. Cassandra’s family includes a husband and 2 children in elementary school.

Doctoral Student Selected for Competitive Special Education Research Seminar Series

andy wojcik

Andy Wojcik, a doctoral student in the department of Special Education and Disability Policy, was selected to participate in the 2015-2016 DR Doctoral Student Seminars in Special Education Research (DRDSS). The Division for Research of the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC-DR) selected 10 scholars through a highly competitive process to participate in the series. This year’s applicants came from doctoral students attending the top programs across the United States and abroad.  DRDSS is an online seminar and discussion series designed to foster connections among students at different universities and contribute to raising the standard of research in the field through sustained inquiry into the question, “What makes for excellence in special education research?” Seminars designed to probe that question will be led this year by noted scholars recognized for making outstanding contributions to the field, including: Dr. Karen Harris, Arizona State University; Dr. Karrie Shogren, University of Kansas; and Dr. Kent McIntosh, University of Oregon.

Andy’s research interests includes identifying teaching strategies that are effective in providing opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities to learn higher math content like algebra. He is planning his doctoral dissertation study to explore mathematical theory and how it applies to learning outcomes for students with ID. Andy along with the other DR scholars will be recognized at the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) conference right before the DR Business Meeting on Friday April 15th.

The DRDSS program is in its 8th year and is designed to include the student community more fully in attaining the goals of DR related to improving the quality of research in special education. For more information about DR, see the website: http://www.cecdr.org.

Congratulations Andy!

BEST in CLASS Community Celebration

By: Maria Gyure, Faculty and Project Coordinator for BEST in CLASS

On November 11th, 2015, Dr. Kevin Sutherland and members of the BEST in CLASS research team hosted a celebration honoring community partners, administrators, colleagues, and staff for their support in completing the 4-year efficacy trial for the preschool version of BEST in CLASS.  The evening event was held on campus at the Scott House, where results for the study were presented by Dr. Sutherland.  The presentation included guest speakers holding a variety of critical community-based roles such as delegates, administrators, and preschool teachers, all with direct connections to BEST in CLASS.


Dr. Bryce McLeod (Psychology), Delegate Lamont Bagby (74th District), Dr. Deborah Speece (Assoc Dean of Research and Faculty Development), and Dr. Kevin Sutherland (Special Education and Disability Policy).

BEST in CLASS, developed by Sutherland and Dr. Maureen Conroy from the University of Florida, is a classroom-based intervention designed for use by early childhood teachers to address the learning and behavioral needs of preschool children who consistently demonstrate challenging behaviors that place them at risk for the development of emotional/behavioral disorders (EBD) and associated adverse outcomes (e.g., school failure).

*Did you know that preschoolers are expelled more than 3 times the rate of children in any other grade?

Developed in the Richmond Metropolitan Area by VCU researchers in collaboration with local school divisions, early childhood administrators, and teachers, the program was designed to enhance and support teachers’ use of effective teaching practices that can help prevent challenging behavior and enhance engagement in learning in children who enter early childhood programs with existing patterns of challenging behavior. In order to support acquisition and mastery of sustainable skills, the intervention is delivered through a one-day introductory training, followed by 14 weeks of practice-based coaching. The practice-based coaching component consists of an individualized collaborative coaching process in which teachers work one-on-one with a trained BEST in CLASS coach to set goals, review data (graphical feedback, anecdotal feedback, video feedback), reflect on progress, and enhance practices.

BEST in CLASS is supported by a growing amount of evidence indicating the promise of this intervention. The efficacy study was conducted in collaboration with early childhood programs in the areas surrounding VCU and the University of Florida; both studies were funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

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Lamont Babgy, Delegate of the 74th District, opened the presentation by discussing the importance of community engagement.   As the current Director of Operations for Peter Paul Development Center and a former member of the Henrico County School Board, Del. Bagby spoke of supporting research to better serve our communities and educational systems.



Dr. Sutherland spoke about results from the 4-year efficacy study and the positive impacts on classroom quality, teacher behavior, and child behavior. Participation in BEST in CLASS was associated with increases in all domains of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, a widely accepted measure of the quality of the classroom atmosphere. Additionally, teachers reported an increased sense of self-efficacy related to classroom organization, instructional strategies, student engagement, accommodating individual differences, and providing feedback for learning. Most importantly, data indicated reductions in challenging behavior across multiple teacher-report and observational measures (i.e., reductions in problem behavior and conflict with teachers) as well as increased child engagement.

* Did you know that research shows positive teacher-child interactions can serve as a “protective” factor for social/emotional and academic success?


Also present and speaking on behalf of the critical need for early intervention and the importance of collaboration with research was Lead Child Development Specialist for RPS Head Start, Natalie Meade. 


Giving a teacher’s perspective on the positive impact of BEST in CLASS was Lynn Kudley, Head Start teacher for Hanover County. Her thoughts transitioned the presentation easily into the discussion of next steps for this research. 

To end the evening, guests learned about Dr. Sutherland’s recent funding of BEST in CLASS-Elementary, a 3-year development grant sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences which will aim to adapt the preschool intervention to a sustainable model for use with elementary school teachers and children (grades K-2). As part of this new project, the team will be developing a stronger home-school communication component in order to help teachers communicate better with families and caregivers.

The White House, the Senate, Capitol Hill: VCU Doctoral Students Travel to DC

As part of the SEDP 705, Seminar on Disability Policy class, Dr. Michael Gamel-McCormick, Mrs. Irina Cain, Mrs. Heather Coleman, Mrs. Allison D’Aguilar, Mrs. Rachel Kunemund, Mrs. Meredith Moates, Ms. Lauren Puglia and Mrs. Brittany Sterrett recently traveled to Washington D.C., to attend the AUCD conference. During the visit, under the guidance of Dr. Michael-Gamel-McCormick, students were able to meet with with senior policy staffers to present on disability policy issues.

Fun Fact #1: Dr. Michael Gamel-McCormick was recently awarded the Alumni Star award from VCU for his knowledge and experience in all areas of human endeavor, illuminating problems, creating solutions and strengthening the quality of lives for individuals with disabilities.  

While in Washington D.C., Dr. Michael Gamel-McCormick and Irina Cain were invited to attend the 40th Anniversary Celebration of The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) at the White House. Michael & Irina were privileged to see Secretary Arne Duncan (U.S. Department of Education), Roberto Rodriguez (Deputy Assistant to the President for Education Policy, White House Domestic Policy Council), Assistant Secretary Michael Yudin (Assistant Secretary Office of Special Education & Rehabilitative Services, U.S. Department of Education) speak about IDEA. Other distinguished guests included Dr. Rud Turnball of Kansas University and Dr. Deborah M. Spitalnik of the Boggs Center who participated in a panel discussion on the history and impact of IDEA. Following that panel discussion, Irina and Michael listed to youth, parents and teachers share their experiences about the impact of IDEA. The Anniversary Reception ended with a reflection on the impact of IDEA by Melody Musgrove, Director, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education and John King, Senior Advisor Delegated Duties of Deputy Secretary of Education, U.S. Department of Education.

1Irina Cain at the White House IDEA 40thCelebration

2Irina with Maria Town, White House Disability Liaison for the Office of Public Engagement

While Irina and Michael were attending the celebration ceremony, the other students attended a plenary session where they listened to a panel discussion regarding big data and data science. Dr. DJ Patel emphasized how data informs policy changes for children and adults with disabilities. Therefore, in order for people’s voices to be heard, it is important to speak up so they know, as Dr. Patel said, “we work for you”, therefore in order to be represented, let us know what you want. During this session, we got to see a live Tuesday’s with Liz, hosted by Liz Weintraub from AUCD. Follow her YouTube channel to see other interviews as well. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLEHWL7i0kECV8GSORs56oK7SP7GXHorOB

For more information on the presenters during the plenary please access the following website:

Fun Fact #2: Dr. Thoma was interviewed by Liz Weintraub for Tuesday’s with Liz recently as well! Watch their interview here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlIqggiz3-k&index=6&list=PLEHWL7i0kECV8GSORs56oK7SP7GXHorOB

3Allison D’Aguilar, Meredith Moates, Lauren Puglia, Rachel Kunemund, Brittany Sterrett, Heather Coleman and Irina Cain on Capitol Hill

After attending the Plenary, everyone met at Capitol Hill!  While on Capitol Hill, the students presented to various senior policy staffers on issues featured around disability policy. The first meeting was with Jake Cornett where Heather Coleman and Rachel Kunemund presented on issues around Early Childhood Special Education, including preschool inclusion and the prevalence rates of significant disabilities in head start programs. Jake Cornett was open to answering questions about his background with special education, current work he has done and advice for the students who are interested in a future in policy.

Fun Fact #3: Jake Cornett’s former advisor at University of Kansas was Dean Chriss Walter-Thomas, VCU School of Education former Dean.

4Everyone with Jake Cornett, Senior Disability Policy Staff to Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions

Meredith Moates and Allison D’Aguilar presented to Bill Knudsen on issues regarding multiple measure assessments and post-secondary outcomes for individuals with disabilities. With a background in special education, Bill was very involved in the discussion on why the policy changes would or would not work when proposed. Bill had a lot of great feedback for the presenters in regards to how to change items so they would possibly pass without changing the big idea. All students left their policy briefs with Bill with hopes for some more feedback.

5Everyone with William (Bill) Knudsen, Senior Disability and Education Policy Staff to Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

Lastly, Lauren Puglia & Brittany Sterret presented to Morgan Brand, Legislative Aide to Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY). Policy issues presented included Medicaid Institutional Bias and Least Restrictive Environment in Schools. Morgan, who took a different path to her position, spoke to everyone about other ways to get into policy. A lot of the advice was good and with challenging questions, led a good discussion around the policy issues.

After a busy day in the Senate, the group headed over to the U.S. Department of Education to attend the final event of the IDEA 40th Anniversary Celebration. During this event some of the leading researchers in the field spoke about the impact of IDEA in varying areas of special education including early childhood, literacy,  math, school climate/social behavior, secondary education and transition, inclusion and teacher training. Distinguished speakers included Dr. Lise Fox, University of South Florida; Dr. Sharon Vaughn, University of Texas; Dr. Lynn Fuchs, Vanderbilt University; Dr. Rob Horner, University of Oregon; Dr. David Test, University of North Carolina; Dr. Michael Wehmeyer, University of Kansas; and Lisa Dieker, University of Central Florida.

Fun Fact #4: You can watch the videos of the presentations from the IDEA 40th celebration ceremony here: http://edstream.ed.gov/webcast/Play/5948bd4d0065424d8a04c2cdd61745d31d

The group finished their trip with a final plenary session at the AUCD conference on Wednesday morning. The topic focused on the importance of transition. The final plenary session, moderated by Dr. Michael Gamel-McCormick, was a multi-panel plenary focused on federal, state, family, and youth perspectives that create and drive successful transition processes. It began with the Congressional panel that spoke on the implementation of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, the efforts to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and how these efforts support young people with disabilities as they transition from school to postsecondary education and work. The Federal panel spoke about the leadership efforts in federal agencies to drive opportunities for employment and further education for transitioning youth, and the state panel discussed efforts to increase the opportunities for employment and post-secondary education at the state levels. Finally, students and families discussed their successes with transition.

The information gained during the AUCD conference plenary sessions as well as the experience on the hill was rewarding for all of the students who attended.

6Dr. Michael Gamel-McCormick, Heather Coleman, Lauren Puglia, Irina Cain, Brittany Sterrett, Rachel Kunemund, Meredith Moates at the AUCD conference.

Early Childhood Special Education Faculty and Student Present at DEC International Conference

Dr. Yaoying Xu, Dr. Mary Ellen Huennekens, Mrs. Serra De Arment, and Mrs. Heather Coleman recently traveled to Atlanta to present for the Division of Early Childhood (DEC) Annual International Conference on Young Children with Special Needs and their Families. DEC is a special-interest division of the Council for Exceptional Children, the premier international professional organization for special educators. The DEC mission statement states: “The Division for Early Childhood (DEC) promotes policies and advances evidence-based practices that support families and enhance the optimal development of young children (0-8) who have or are at risk for developmental delays and disabilities. DEC is an international membership organization for those who work with or on behalf of young children (0-8) with disabilities and other special needs and their families.”

A variety of professionals attend the DEC conference each year, including researchers, higher education faculty, practitioners, and parents.  This year’s conference theme was, “The Time Is Always Right to Do What Is Right” (MLK, 1964) for Young Children and Families. The conference attracted leading experts from around the world in early intervention, early childhood special education, and related disciplines sharing their knowledge and expertise through presentations and discussions. The following briefly summarizes VCU faculty and student presentations:


Yaoying Xu presented a poster presentation titled, “Investigating the Effects of Summer School on Children’s School Readiness Skills.” Dr. Xu presented a study that examined the effects of an intensive summer transition program provided to preschoolers. The preliminary results presented showed positive effects of the program on preschoolers’ early literacy skills from pre- to post-intervention. Additional data provided further evidence by comparing the performance of children who participated in the program and their peers who did not.


Serra De Arment, Yaoying Xu, and Mary Ellen Huennekens conducted a conference presentation titled, “Applying Universal Design for Learning to Support Early Childhood Special Educators’ Development.” Mrs. De Arment, Dr. Xu, and Dr. Huennekens shared information about applying UDL in the VCU Project KSR: Preparing Knowledgeable, Skilled, and Responsive Early Intervention/Early Childhood Special Education Personnel for High-Need Communities. Using the UDL framework, Project KSR is an OSEP-funded EI/ECSE pre-service personnel preparation model to improve outcomes for young children from high-need communities. Scholars benefit from faculty modeling of the UDL principles and demonstrate UDL competencies in working with diverse young children with disabilities and their families. For more information about Project KSR, please contact Project KSR Coordinator, Serra De Arment at dearmentst@vcu.edu.

coleman presentation

Heather Coleman presented a poster presentation titled, “Interventions to Increase Verbal Mands for Children with Autism: A Literature Review.” Mrs. Coleman presented a literature review designed to explore specific communication interventions. Echoic-to-mand training, sign language, and picture communication are commonly used interventions for teaching mands (requests) for preschool students with autism. The synthesized literature indicated that echoic to mand training and sign language are effective for increasing verbal mands. However, current research is needed to determine the effectiveness for sign language. Further, picture communication may or may not be effective. Future areas of need were also presented. To see the full poster presentation please visit Mrs. Coleman’s website.

New Research to Disability Policy Advocacy (RTPA) Doctoral Program of Study

Dr. Colleen Thoma has recently been awarded a five year Leadership Grant that will provide funding for 10 doctoral students who are interested in becoming university faculty in special education with experience in disability policy. The RTPA doctoral training program will address the paucity of knowledgeable faculty in the area of disability policy from three perspectives: scholars with experience in disability policy work at the national and/or state levels who need to develop skills in teaching, research, and state or local community-engaged service; scholars with experience as practitioners at the state or local school level who need to develop knowledge and skills in the development of relevant national legislation and regulatory promulgation; and all scholars who need to understand the implication of national and state policies on the education of children and youth in high-need urban settings.

Grant funding for five full time and five part time students will include: tuition and fees, stipend (full time students only), technology, and travel. 

If you are interested in pursuing a doctoral degree in Special Education and Disability Policy, or know of exceptional master’s level students who might be interested in furthering their education, please contact Dr. Thoma at cathoma@vcu.edu for more information.

Opportunities begin for part time students in Spring 2016 and full time students in Fall 2016. Please apply no later than November 15, 2015.

Please join us for an information session and dessert reception on Tuesday October 20th from 5:00-6:00pm in the Student Commons, Canal Room to receive more detailed information about the program, and review application requirements. Feel free to share this information with others who are also interested in the doctoral evaluation at VCU. Please email Lauren Mortensen at lcmortensen@vcu.edu if you are able to attend.

The Student Commons is located at 907 Floyd Ave. The Canal Room is located on the second floor of the Student Commons. If you can’t make the information session, but need additional information, please contact us at 828-1332 or sedp@vcu.edu.