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Doctoral Students Receive Jane West SPARK Award for Policy Work on Special Education

Congratulations to Ashley L. White and Cassandra B. Willis (pictured left to right) for receiving the 2018 Jane West SPARK Award at the Teacher Education Division (TED) of the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) conference in November. The award, established in 2016, is given annually to individuals who advocate for special education in teacher preparation (e.g., government relations, letter writing, visits to Congressional members), and is committed to continuing this work in the future.

Ashley L. White
A doctoral student at the University of South Florida (USF), White received a 2015 doctoral fellowship for the Special Education Policy Studies, a grant specifically designed to prepare doctoral scholars as leaders in the field of special education policy. The following year, she was accepted to the Higher Education Consortium for Special Education’s (HECSE) Doctoral Short Course. HECSE is an organization that advocates for the “appropriate educational opportunities and effective school outcomes for millions of American children and youth with disabilities.” Since becoming involved in HECSE, her advocacy activities have included interning at the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) where she engaged in policy matters including but not limited to regulatory reforms, ED/OSEP grant priorities, and engagement with advocacy organizations. White also served as an HECSE intern, with responsibilities that included connecting faculty at USF with HECSE committees, distributing USF documents to its Congressional representatives, and arranging Hill visits for university faculty as well as all of HECSE’s Florida members.

In addition, White served on the Policy/Fellowship Committee of the University of South Florida’s Graduate Council and worked as the policy correspondent for the College of Education’s Graduate Student Council, where she provided pertinent federal, state, and local policy information to faculty and students. Over the past year, she has continued to develop and maintain relationships with local and federal policy makers, providing input related to consequential policy issues and documents such as Florida’s ESSA Plan and teacher pay. Most recently, White was invited to join her local school board’s Citizen’s Advisory Committee, which has helped her learn about and affect policies and procedures impacting special education students and programs in her community.

In 2018, White interned for her district’s representative, U.S. Congresswoman Kathy Castor, where she corresponded with individuals in federal, state, and, local positions and built a foundation that will help her remain involved and influential in special education advocacy work. Currently, she is concentrating on restorative policy, creating and implementing policy that specifically and intentionally addresses the historic bonds of inequity and oppression in the field.

Cassandra B. Willis
Willis, a doctoral student at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education, is a Research to Policy Advocacy (RTPA) Fellow at the university. Willis has made several visits to federal and state legislators to advocate for the continuation of funds to support teacher preparation during the past few years. She was selected by TED to attend the CEC Special Education Legislative Summit on Capitol Hill, where she shared her personal story as a first-generation college student whose degrees were each funded by some aspect of the government—Veterans Affairs, National Science Foundation, and the Office of Special Education Programs in the U.S Department of Education. In addition, Willis worked with the office of Virginia Representative Bobby Scott by providing a special education perspective on the proposed bill, H.R. 6236, Innovations to Recruit and Retain Excellent Teachers Act, and with the Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute by briefing educational bills for Senate members.

At the state level, she worked extensively on the accreditation of teacher preparation programs and diversifying the teacher workforce to identify the barriers for teachers of color as well as with legislators to address the obstacles. As a result, former Governor of Virginia Terry McAuliffe announced several actions including Executive Directive 14 directing the Board of Education to issue emergency regulations to provide Virginia’s colleges and universities the option to offer an undergraduate major in teaching. Willis recently partnered with a junior legislator as a researcher for a bill addressing teacher shortages in Virginia in the 2019 General Assembly to address the funding and licensing barriers. Her advocacy work also includes a summer internship with TASH, an advocacy organization that seeks to advance inclusive communities through advocacy. Though no longer interning with TASH, she continues to partner with the organization on the implementation of the Endrew F. case, working with civil rights attorneys to translate this federal policy to action for teachers and parents.

Willis is also a Scholar in the AACTE Holmes Program. She is committed to lobbying for robust campaigns around hiring and retaining professors of color and incorporating inclusive practices into teacher preparation programs, which require funding support and possibly legislative action.

This award is named on behalf of Jane West, a national leader in developing and sustaining a national advocacy voice in disability policy and special education. West is the co-founder of the Coalition for Teaching Quality, a 100-plus member coalition dedicated to strengthening equal access to quality teaching for all students. Formerly the staff director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Disability Policy, West holds a Ph.D. in special education and currently serves as a consultant to AACTE.

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Katrina Norfleet

Content Strategist, AACTE