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Expanding Special Education in the Bahamas

Claire Verden is spending time in the Bahamas during her sabbatical this spring but she's not on "island time" like tourists. An associate professor in West Chester's College of Education, Verden is busy expanding WCU's special education partnership in Eleuthera, one of the many slender islands in the Bahamas archipelago.

The partnership has its roots in a leisure trip that Verden took to the island six years ago. She stayed at a rental home near the Center for Exceptional Learners in Governor's Harbour and before long, was foregoing the beach to visit the school. She learned that the school's one teacher, William Holland, manages to juggle the needs of diverse students of all ages. Holland and Verden stayed in touch after she returned to West Chester, talking about ways that WCU could collaborate with the Center for Exceptional Learners.

During spring break 2010, the first group of WCU students - all special education majors - spent a week at the island school, working with its students one-to-one, conducting assessments and helping to write special education plans. Corinne Murphy, who was recently named chair of WCU's department of special education, was co-leader of the trip.

Every spring break since, Verden and Murphy have taken WCU students to Eleuthera to work at the Center for Exceptional Learners. The relationship now includes Deep Creek Middle School on the southern end of the island.

In 2013, a second group of WCU students spent seven and a half weeks teaching there to fulfill part of their student teaching requirement. "This was the first time that the College of Education offered student teaching opportunities abroad," notes Verden. "It was a great cross-cultural experience for our students to be able to work in Eleuthera for this extended period of time. This spring we'll send six student teachers, compared to four in past years."

New for 2015, Verden is developing a partnership with the local primary school in Governor's Harbour to support children there with disabilities. "We are very excited about this as we can reach more children who are struggling learners," she says.

In another new development, WCU student teachers will work with the island library to develop a "Bikes and Books" program for local youth. Students who attend after-school and weekend literacy programming will be eligible to receive a bike. The catch? They may keep the bike for as long as they are involved in the program.

"It's pretty exciting," says Verden. "Without our support they would not be able to run this library program."

Verden will also work on several internal and external grant applications during her sabbatical. "We did not receive any grant funding for Alternative Spring Break this year so the price was higher and as a result the number of applications was down. We want to keep the cost as low as possible to make the experience accessible to more students."

The rewards multiply with each year, she adds. "Things are building and we are making a real and significant difference [there] for children with disabilities."