October 25, 2016 | 2:30 p.m.
By Whitney Bak ’15, content specialist
This January, students will be able to complete Bethel’s M.A. in Special Education program fully online. Katie Bonawitz, associate professor and program director of special education, says that the new offering is—in part—a response to Greater Minnesota’s need for more licensed special education teachers. “There’s almost a level of desperation” she says. “We have some schools that are looking at hiring high school graduates because they don’t have anyone to choose from.”
According to Bonawitz, a lack of convenient licensure options has been a huge barrier for the state. Many special education programs are only available to students who have already earned their elementary education license, but Bethel differentiates itself by welcoming students with any B.A. or B.S. degree. “Social workers, psychologists, people who were maybe in sociology for their undergrad—they make really great candidates to become special ed. teachers,” Bonawitz says. “So we want to reach out to Greater Minnesota and help [schools] recruit people who can be in this field, knowing that we’re going to be able to prepare them all the way through.”
Because Bethel has given students the unique ability to complete the program as a continuation of any undergraduate degree, many special ed. students have been willing to drive hours to Bethel’s campus to take part in the face-to-face program. One student, Patty Dowling GS’17, says that the “extreme benefits of the exceptional education” she’s receiving at Bethel have made her seven-hour round-trip commute worthwhile. “There are things I learn every week that I can apply to my practice directly,” says Dowling, who is beginning her second year as a middle school special education teacher at Deer River High School, a 6-12 school located near Leech Lake Indian Reservation in Minnesota. “I feel much more confident in my abilities…and I’ve been able to take a leadership role with other incoming [special education teachers].”
Students like Dowling have been another influencing factor behind the decision to offer an online program. Though Bethel boasts a supportive and flexible learning environment for busy adults, not all interested students can tackle the long commute. Eliminating that obstacle allows the program to support students who are committed to living and serving in communities throughout the state.
Dowling says that the switch will directly impact her community, noting how she’s excited for the opportunity it affords both her colleagues and the students she works with. “These people will get to stay in our community that they’re really passionate about, and the kids will receive an education from the best-trained [teachers],” she says.
For Bonawitz and other instructors in the special education program, that’s what it’s all about. Bonawitz says that the online program will maintain the high standards built by Bethel’s special education department over 25 years, while “reducing structural stress” by creating an easy process, consistent structure, and supportive environment. The team of 24 faculty members—21 of whom are currently working in the field of special education—hopes that by lowering stress, focusing on excellence, and increasing accessibility, they can begin to fill the needs of the state and—eventually—the world.
“Ultimately, [this change] means our families with children with special needs will be served, and that’s what we care most about,” says Bonawitz. “They’ll be served by well-prepared, qualified special education teachers...who are the hands and feet of Jesus.”