Against a backdrop of news about special education teacher shortages and unmet student needs, the Special Education program at Sonoma State is proving to be a leader in preparing and recruiting teachers for the field.
Recent successes include $1 million for new teacher training and three Teacher of the Year awardees since 2019.
The SEEDS (Seawolves to Education Specialists) program launched this year under the co-direction of the department’s Interim Chair, Dr. Elizabeth Ducy, and Graduate Studies Coordinator Dr. Jennifer Madhavi. The two secured a $1-million federal grant for the program, which is aimed at increasing the number of credentialed special education teachers from diverse backgrounds.
Ducy and Mahdavi had never applied for a grant, but were determined to remove cost as a barrier to entry into special education credentialing, an issue they saw for students like Viridiana Avila Reyes.
“I was a paraprofessional for years, and my teaching colleagues kept advocating for me to become a teacher,” Avila Reyes said. “But money was always an issue. I already had a student loan and wasn’t thinking of going back to school.”
Now among the inaugural group of eight scholars, she credits Ducy with getting her through the process.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her. She believed in me.”
SEEDS scholars each receive up to $22,000 to pay for their credential education and exams, as well as ongoing advising, advanced coursework, and first-year teaching support. Applicants from a wide range of underrepresented groups – including those with disabilities themselves – are encouraged to apply.
“Kids do better when they see teachers with similar life experiences as their own,” Mahdavi said.
Bianca LeMaster struggled to navigate college as a first-generation Latinx college student. But as a SEEDS scholar, she says she feels seen and supported, and hopes one day to be an example in her community. “For children of color who haven’t had teachers like them, I hope to say, ‘You can do this too,’” she said.
Added Avila Reyes, “Another aide said to me, ‘I’m glad you’re becoming a teacher. You don’t see a lot of Latinos in the field. Represent us.’”
Three special educators named Sonoma County Teacher of the Year earned their credentials from SSU: Katya Robinson (2019), Danielle Kennedy (2021) and Meaghan King (2023), all featured in The Press Democrat. Robinson was among five teachers named California Teacher of the Year.
King is now a mentor teacher for inaugural SEEDS scholar Jessie Cahill. Avila Reyes has been placed in the Santa Rosa City Schools District, where Robinson is a program manager in the Extensive Support Needs department.
Avila Reyes hopes to continue the cycle of helping new educators succeed. “The support I’ve received in this journey from my professors and peers makes me want to keep going and become part of this community after I get my credential.”