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At VCU, Professional Development Academy Makes Headway

VCU's Division of Student Affairs, in collaboration with the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Workplace Supports, now operates the Professional Development Academy through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Postsecondary Education. VCU is just one of 22 college and university campuses to receive grant money under the Department of Education program, known as "Demonstration Projects to Ensure Students with Disabilities Receive a Quality Higher Education." Fund recipients are charged with the challenge of enhancing the ability of faculty and staff on their campuses to serve students with disabilities appropriately and effectively. The campuses themselves determine the ways that individual grantees elect to meet that challenge.

The administrators and staff of the Professional Development Academy have taken a thoughtful and well-considered approach toward implementing the project. At the outset, they established four strategic objectives to guide them toward improving faculty and staff training in serving the university's students with disabilities. These objectives are to:

Foster a more welcoming and supportive campus environment for students with disabilities.

Equip administrators and support staff with the information and resources necessary to better meet the unique and varied needs of students with disabilities.

Provide training and technical assistance to instructional faculty to assist them in teaching, advising, and ultimately facilitating successful academic outcomes for their students with disabilities.

Establish a campus-wide network that will facilitate a more decentralized support and service delivery model.

All efforts and activities undertaken by project staff to meet these goals and to foster lasting change within the VCU system (change that that will far outlive the three-year life of the grant) have been organized around two entities. The first is a network of Professional Development Partners (PDPs) who serve as primary points of contact within the individual schools and administrative units of the VCU system. The second is a Professional Development Resource Team, whose members provide ongoing technical assistance and expertise in support of the PDPs. In addition, project staff and the PDPs work together to complete administrative and programmatic tasks identified as important by a recent external evaluation of VCU's services for students with disabilities.

The following is a list of the project's primary accomplishments during the first year of the grant, which recently concluded:

A series of disability awareness and sensitivity workshops to various campus support units, targeting first-line staff who are likely to interact with both students and employees seeking access to campus resources.

The development of VCU 101, an orientation class for first-time and transferring students covering such topics as transition and adjustment, availability of support services, academic program planning and course modifications, social integration, and coordination of academic and community-based services.

The development of various training modules for instructional faculty that provide hands-on, practical experience in working with students and other faculty with disabilities. The modules address applications for adaptive technologies within the classroom, disability law, appropriate accommodations and modifications, and accessible instructional design.

Liz Getzel, project coordinator of the Professional Development Academy, is enthusiastic about the progress made thus far on achieving the project's stated goals. When preparing the proposal for competition, project staff were careful to design a curriculum that would deliver "the most bang for the buck," thus yielding benefits lasting long after the grant's expiration. Getzel attributes much of their success to Project Director Dr. Henry Rhone, who, as VCU's vice-provost for student affairs, has promoted the goals of the Professional Development Academy at all levels of the university's operation. For additional information about the Professional Development Academy, contact Liz Getzel directly at (804) 827-0748 or at

Reprinted by permission from the HEATH Resource Center of the American Council on Education