Faculty Spotlight – Debbie Speece, PhD

Dr. Debbie Speece is the associate dean of research and faculty development within the School of Education, and a tenured Professor of the Department of Counseling and Special Education. Speece’s research interest is understanding variables that place children at risk for reading disabilities and interventions that may ameliorate that risk. As the associate dean for research and faculty development for the School of Education, Speece is responsible for promoting the scholarly agenda of the school through education and awareness of research opportunities, individual work with faculty and grant development. An average day consists of a tsunami of emails and meetings, most of which are productive and interesting. Speece doesn’t get an opportunity to meet with students as much as she’d like due to her current position, but is willing to meet with students interested in grant writing and to serve on dissertation committees. Speece’s experience as a graduate student gave her unique opportunities to participate in grant writing. She highly recommended the book, How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silva, Ph.D. (she gave me a copy!) She also recommends doctoral students to read “A professor goes to Washington: An open letter to colleagues” published in Remedial and Special Education (2015) to learn how one can be an advocate for research at the federal level.


I also asked Dr. Speece what did she like most about her doctoral program. She attended UNC – Chapel Hill’s Education Psychology program. She mentioned it was a great program and that she was a pre-doctoral fellow at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center, was able to work with many interdisciplinary researchers, secured an externally-funded grant that funded her dissertation, produced several publications and knew she would go into academia. She enjoys exercising, spending time with family, grandchildren, and making time for herself a least one day a week.


Dr. Speece’s recommendations for doctoral students are: before graduation publish at least two peer-reviewed papers, get as much grant writing experience as possible—volunteer for all the grunt work!, and take as many methods classes as possible.

Interview conducted by: Evandra Catherine, doctoral student, Special Education and Disability Policy




Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District

The issue is: What is the level of educational benefit that school districts must confer on children with disabilities to provide them with the free appropriate public education guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004)

Endrew F. is a student with autism whose parents argued that the boy had not been provided a free appropriate public education, or FAPE, as required by IDEA in the years he attended public school in Douglas County.  His parents therefore enrolled him in a private school, where he did receive a meaningful education — quickly learning math, in particular, and overcoming behavioral problems. The parents then sought reimbursement from the public school district .

Relying on the federal statute, Endrew’s parents asked the Douglas County School District to pay for Endrew’s private schooling.  The district (hearing officer) and the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado both said no. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit concurred determining that the school district had provided FAPE because the boy received “some” educational benefit that was “more than de minimis” during his years in public school, making his education “appropriate,” even if it was not meaningful, and now the family is asking the Supreme Court to weigh in.

“Some courts, including the Tenth Circuit, hold that an IEP satisfies the (IDEA) if it provides a child with a just-above-trivial educational benefit, while others hold that the act requires a heightened educational benefit,” reads the family’s petition to the high court. “Resolving the conflict among the circuits will ensure that millions of children with disabilities receive a consistent level of education, while providing parents and educators much-needed guidance regarding their rights and obligations.”

Supreme Court received case December 22, 2015

Oral Arguments began January 11, 2017

Jeffrey L. Fisher Esq.; on behalf of the petitioner (Endrew); challenges the standard in IDEA, that schools provide instruction and related services to the child that are reasonably calculated to provide “substantially equal educational opportunities”

The standard – “substantially equal educational opportunities”

Neal K. Katyal Esq.; on behalf of respondent (Douglas County) maintains that the standard set in Rowley is understood based on its “unchallenged” interpretation over the past 34 years – that de minimis educational benefit is adequate

The justices’ concern is that de minimis sets the standard too low and seeks to determine what word should be used in the current standard “substantially equal educational opportunities.” The justices posed the question, instead of “equal” what word should replace it?

The case was submitted after oral arguments

Written by: Evandra Catherine, First year doctoral student,

Special Education and Disability Policy RTPA


Join us for a discussion about the implication of a Trump presidency on disability policy and educational policy in particular. This webinar will be lead by disability policy experts, Drs. Jane West, and Michael-Gamel McCormick and is scheduled for Tuesday, November 22nd from 4pm-6:40 pm. More details are provided below:

How will the Presidential Election results affect P-20 public education, special education, and disability advocacy?  Over the next four years, new Washington leadership is likely to change many federal and state programs and policies including the role and responsibilities of the U.S. Department of Education.  In addition, ESSA, the Common Core, IDEA, school vouchers, higher education policy, and the scope of multiple education regulations will likely be reconsidered.   What are emerging signs about these anticipated changes?  Who might serve in key education roles in the Trump Administration?  How will the 115th Congress work with the Trump Administration? How do these changes affect the ongoing work of education advocates  To learn more about these questions and related topics, please join us for a FREE webinar on November 22, 2016 4:00-6:30 p.m. (EST) hosted by two leading Washington education policy experts:  Dr. Michael Gamel-McCormick and Dr. Jane West.

Dr. Michael Gamel-McCormick is the Associate Executive Director for Research and Policy at Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD). Before joining AUCD, Michael was the Disability Policy Director for the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions under the chairmanship of Sen. Tom Harkin. He was also senior education policy advisor for Sen. Harkin. Prior to joining Senate staff, Michael was the professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies for 17 years, dean of the College of Education and Public Policy, and Director of the Center for Disabilities Studies, Delaware’s UCEDD, all at the University of Delaware.

Dr. Jane E. West is a federal education policy expert who provides consulting services to a range of national teacher education and special education organizations.  She specializes in assisting professionals in informing and participating in the policy making process in Washington DC.  She served as a Senior Vice President at the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education (AACTE) for eight years where she led AACTE’s advocacy and policy efforts. Prior to her AACTE appointment, she was a founder of Washington Partners LLC, a government relations firm.  Jane began her policy career on Capitol Hill as senior education advisor on the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

This is free webinar sponsored by the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Counseling and Special Education, and is supported by U.S. Department of Education grant #H325D150077-15 as part of VCU’s Research to Policy Advocacy (RTPA) doctoral leadership training project.

Tue, Nov 22, 2016 4:00 PM – 6:30 PM Eastern Standard Time

Please join my meeting from your computer, tablet or smartphone.
10-15 minutes prior to the start of the session follow this link:  http://aucd.adobeconnect.com/r5c692o7nku/

  • Select “Enter as a Guest” and type your name
  • Click “Enter room”

 You can also dial in using your phone.
If you need to dial in, you can call 866-317-5076; no access code or ID is necessary

Secretary of Education to Visit VCU’s Richmond Teacher Residency Program

  Brian McNeill
University Public Affairs
Phone: (804) 938-7558
Email: bwmcneill@vcu.edu


U.S. Education Secretary to visit Richmond Teacher Residency program

RICHMOND, Va. (Nov. 1, 2016) — U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. will visit Elkhardt-Thompson Middle School in Richmond on Wednesday to highlight the Richmond Teacher Residency program.

The Richmond Teacher Residency program — a partnership between Richmond Public Schools and the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education — is a highly competitive graduate teacher residency program that recruits, prepares and supports teachers, preparing them to meet the distinct challenges of urban school systems.

“Secretary King’s visit highlights how federal dollars are being used to transform the preparation of teachers for our most challenged schools,” said Therese A. Dozier, Ed.D., director of the Richmond Teacher Residency program. “It affirms the innovative work that the VCU School of Education is doing in partnership with Richmond Public Schools through the Richmond Teacher Residency program to prepare highly effective urban teachers who are committed to the students of RPS for the long term.”

King will visit Elkhardt-Thompson Middle School, located at 7825 Forest Hill Ave., at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 2.

He will be joined by VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D.; VCU School of Education Dean Andrew Daire, Ph.D.; and Richmond Public Schools Associate Superintendent of Academic Services Andrea Kane, Ed.D.

The U.S. Department of Education recently published regulations to help strengthen teacher preparation by ensuring that new teachers are ready to succeed in the classroom and that every student is taught by a great educator. The regulations aim to bring transparency to the effectiveness of teacher preparation programs, provide programs with ongoing feedback to help them improve continuously, and respond to educators across the country who do not feel ready to enter the classroom after graduation.

As part of his visit, King will talk informally with a group of Richmond Teacher Residency graduates, residents and mentor teachers. He will also visit classrooms to see Richmond Teacher Residency teachers in action. He will also hold a question-and-answer session with the news media.

Richmond Teacher Residency is funded through a U.S. Department of Education Teacher Quality Partnership grant.


 About VCU and VCU Health

Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 225 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Seventy-nine of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 13 schools and one college. The VCU Health brand represents the health sciences schools of VCU, the VCU Massey Cancer Center and the VCU Health System, which comprises VCU Medical Center (the only academic medical center and Level I trauma center in the region), Community Memorial Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU and Virginia Premier Health Plan. For more, please visit www.vcu.edu and vcuhealth.org

Disability Employment Awareness Month: Helping Youth with Disabilities Transition to Employment

2016posterenglishfrontOctober is designated National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) by the United States Department of Labor – Office of Disability Employment Policy. As we come to the end of the month, we thought it fitting to take a moment to reflect on the many contributions of people with disabilities to our workplaces and to consider how we, as educators, can help facilitate the entry of young adults with disabilities into the workforce. The theme for NDEAM this year is #InclusionWorks. In this post, we’ll consider how inclusivity in our thinking, planning, and practices can both address barriers to and promote the competitive, integrated employment of young adults with disabilities as they transition from school to work.

Emphasizing the steps to encourage successful transition is necessary because significant gaps exist between the employment outcomes of people with disabilities compared to their typical peers. Only 21% of people with disabilities over the age of 18, report that they are employed, and many of that group are employed in segregated “sheltered” settings and receive pay below the national minimum wage rate.1 The recent passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 (WIOA) provides for training and support for individuals with disabilities to gain and maintain competitive employment in integrated settings within communities. Further effort is needed to ensure a more equitable and dynamic employment marketplace that is inclusive of people with disabilities.  

What constitutes a successful TRANSITION from school to work, or from school to adulthood after students exit high school? For the majority of us, having a job that we enjoy and working towards living on our own without depending on others for resources is part of a successful transition. This goal holds for students with disabilities as well. The question then becomes “What can we do as educators and community service providers to support students with disabilities to have successful post-school outcomes?”. We can begin by focusing on and building interagency collaboration. Recent WIOA legislation requires Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) providers and schools to work together earlier and more cohesively to support transitioning students. Collaboration does not end with schools and VR working together; encouraging student and family involvement in transition planning is also a necessary part of successful transition.

Educators can also support student involvement by fostering the development of self-determination skills for students with disabilities. Self-determined students are active members on their transition planning teams, demonstrating competencies such as goal setting, choice making, and self-advocacy. Students should feel that they are integral members of the transition team, having input and making choices with the surrounding support of the education and VR systems.

Ending sub-minimum wage discrimination for people with disabilities, creating funding incentives for community integrated employment, and expanding relationships with businesses to match production demands with skilled workers with disabilities are three policy initiatives currently in discussion. Recent research has suggested the promise of both customized employment approaches and internship programs in bridging the gap from school to work. Customized employment is a model where a tailored job description is created that matches the job seeker’s abilities with the needs of an employer. Project SEARCH is an example of a year-long internship program that partners businesses with employment and educational agencies to provide job training and sustainable employment to students in their last year of secondary education. These approaches offer the promise of a more integrated and diverse workforce that builds on the strength of all individuals and employees.  

We’d like to end with a few practical guidelines for educators to help promote the successful employment of young adults with disabilities:

  • Learn about the services offered by and the rules for accessing adult agencies, such as state vocational rehabilitation agencies and local community service boards. Reach out to representatives of these agencies. Share information and contacts with transition-aged students and their families. It can be tricky for transition-aged students and their families to navigate the entry into adult services world; accurate and readily available information can make a significant difference.
  • Be creative in developing a wide range of work experiences while students are in school. Work collaboratively with your state vocational rehabilitation agency to offer different work experience models to meet the individualized needs of transition-aged students with disabilities. Plan with the end goal in mind – integrated, competitive employment.
  • As educators, keep a pulse on the current needs of the workforce and identify what skillsets employers are going to be looking for. Develop classroom and community activities that will help students acquire these skills.
  • Develop relationships with local businesses. Oftentimes, businesses are more than willing to be a part of the transition to work process for young adults with disabilities, but they don’t know how or they haven’t been asked.
  • Keep the hopes and dreams of young people at the forefront of transition planning and practices. Help students with disabilities to live the kinds of lives that they want.

Resource Links:


1Wehman, P. H. (2011). Employment for persons with disabilities: Where are we now and where do we need to go?. Journal Of Vocational Rehabilitation, 35(3), 145-151.

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.