University of Rochester

Warner Lands $1.25M to Improve Education for Children with Significant Disabilities

October 27, 2011

Federal Grant Helps Tackle Critical Shortage of Teachers in Special Education

The demand for more special education teachers prepared to work with students with disabilities in high-need schools has plagued American school systems for years. This is especially the case for students with significant disabilities at the high school level. A new $1.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education positions the University of Rochester's Warner School of Education to address this critical shortage locally by providing scholarships for aspiring and current teachers to serve and meet the needs of students with significant disabilities.

According to the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition, the dropout rate for students with disabilities is approximately twice that of general education students. In New York State, less than half of students with disabilities graduate from high school and in Rochester alone, which has the highest number of students with significant disabilities outside of New York City, less than one-quarter of these students finish school. The five-year federal grant will fund a new Warner School initiative, known as Preparing and Retaining Highly Qualified Educators of Students with Significant Disabilities—or Project PRESS—that aims to increase the number of teachers in the Rochester region qualified to work with and improve the educational outcomes of students with significant disabilities, including opportunities for meaningful work and college.

"Students with significant disabilities deserve highly-qualified teachers and a quality education," said Julia M. White, principal investigator for Project PRESS and director of the inclusive/special education program at Warner. "With this grant, we will be able to prepare and retain more teachers who are committed to providing students with significant disabilities the quality education that they deserve—one that is deeply rooted in inclusive practice and social justice. Graduates of our program will be prepared to work with students in the most inclusive environment possible and provide an education that prepares them well for work and life." 

Over the next five years, the project will produce a total of 32 special education teachers who will obtain the NYS Annotation for Teaching Students with Severe and/or Multiple Disabilities (eight through an entry-level master's program leading to certification in Teaching Students with Disabilities at grades 7-12, eight through a master's program for initially certified teachers, and 16 through an advanced certificate program for fully certified inclusion teachers). These 32 pre-service and in-service teachers will be able to enroll tuition free into these programs. In exchange, they each will commit to teaching students with disabilities for at least two years for every year the scholarship is received. 

With a complementary focus on transition, behavior, communications, and methods for working with children with significant disabilities, Project PRESS will support all scholarship recipients as they take a common sequence of courses and related mentored field experiences, as required for the annotation, for a total of 13 graduate credits. Each course will include field-based assignments intended to integrate theory with practice through the interaction with students with disabilities in a variety of instructional settings. Scholarship recipients will receive unparalleled academic support, such as support from teacher mentors and leaders, opportunities to work with students with significant disabilities through student teaching placements, and mentorship from high school and college students with disabilities.

"Each scholarship recipient will have unique opportunities to engage in non-supervisory relationships with students with significant disabilities where they will be coached by these students in meaningful ways," White said. "The experiences that they gain from these mentored relationships will help to shape, and possibly transform, how they think about and approach disability-related issues in the classroom."

Following graduation, all participants will continue to receive ongoing professional development support for at least two years through monthly professional development seminars led by inclusion experts. 

While quality, innovative coursework and mentored practicum experiences are key features of the Warner School's inclusive/special education teacher preparation program, Project PRESS also will include a unique collaboration with schools and community partners—including the University of Rochester's Strong Center for Developmental Disabilities and the Institute for Innovative Transition, Monroe #1 BOCES, and the Rochester City School District. Each partner will provide complementary expertise to Project PRESS, which together will enhance the effectiveness of the advanced certificate, professional master's, and pre-service programs. These partnerships will allow students access to a full range of special education programs, resources, supports, and services through field experiences in inclusive work settings and college programs, as well as provide opportunities to work directly with students with significant disabilities.

"Project PRESS provides training and experiences that are not offered at other higher education institutions that focus solely on serving students with mild to moderate disabilities," added White. "With this project, we will be able to present aspiring and current teachers an opportunity to obtain one of the highest quality educations for teaching special education, with a focus on students with significant disabilities, in high-need districts such as the Rochester City School District. Warner will be one of only a few institutions outside of New York City where interested teachers can pursue this credential for working with students with significant disabilities."

The Warner School grant is funded through the U.S. Department of Education's $11.5 million Personnel to Improve Services and Results for Children with Disabilities Program. "Students with disabilities deserve the same world-class education as their non-disabled peers," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in announcing the federal grants. "These grants will move us closer to that goal by giving special educators valuable training."

For more information about Project PRESS or the Warner School's inclusive/special education teacher preparation program, visit, or contact admissions at (585) 275-3950 or by e-mail at

About the Warner School of Education
Founded in 1958, the University of Rochester's Warner School of Education offers master's and doctoral degree programs in teaching and curriculum, school leadership, higher education, counseling, human development, and educational policy. The Warner School of Education offers a new accelerated option for its EdD programs that allows eligible students to earn a doctorate in education in as few as three years part time while holding a professional job in the same field. The Warner School of Education is recognized both regionally and nationally for its tradition of preparing practitioners and researchers to become leaders and agents of change in schools, universities, and community agencies; generating and disseminating research; and actively participating in education reform.