It was during her time as a special education teacher at Taylor County Middle School that Fairmont State Associate Professor of Special Education Dr. Julie Reneau felt called to continue her education at the doctoral level so that she could help guide the next generation of special educators in their professional pursuits.
“I hoped that as a professor, I could positively impact individuals who were preparing to teach students with disabilities,” she said.
Reneau began working as a temporary faculty member at Fairmont State in 2009, while simultaneously completing her doctoral degree, and eventually transitioned into her now full-time position as the coordinator of the University’s Master of Education in Multi-Categorical Special Education with Autism program. In addition to her role as Associate Professor of Special Education, she also serves as the Director of Autism Individualized Mentoring and Support Services at Fairmont State.
We recently caught up with Dr. Reneau to discuss the importance of her work, which has landed her as one of five finalists for the Faculty Merit Foundation 2020 West Virginia Professor of the Year Award.
Q. How did your previous experience as a special education teacher influence the perspectives you have in your current roles at Fairmont State?
A. When preparing for my classes, I always think about how the information or strategies can be applied in the classroom. I think that it is essential to help our preservice teachers develop a growth mindset. I try always to remember what it was like to teach in a k-12 classroom, knowing that you are continually making quick decisions and mistakes are sometimes made. As a professor, I must help preservice and beginning teachers understand that they will make mistakes, and they need to learn from those mistakes. If our preservice teachers develop this mindset and continue to reflect on their teaching and interactions with students, then they will become reflective practitioners that can adjust to the changing demands of the profession.
Q. How long has the AIMSS program been at Fairmont State and why was it established?
A. I worked with colleagues and community members to start the AIMSS program as a pilot program in 2015. We had a student in the School of Education diagnosed with autism who needed additional support. My daughter is diagnosed with autism and attended another university with a college support program, so I had experience from the parent’s perspective. We were fortunate to have assistance from that university and colleagues in the local community who worked with children with autism or supported teachers who worked with children with autism. The university administration was very supportive, and we continue to receive this support today.
Q. What is the goal of the program, and in what specific ways does it serve students?
A. The program’s goal is to provide individualized support for academics, social skills and life skills. Each week the coordinator, Taylor Masters, and I meet with the program’s graduate assistants and student workers to discuss the AIMSS students’ progress and review their course assignments, scheduling, social issues or daily living needs. In addition, many of the students attend regular support sessions several times per week in the AIMSS offices. These services are provided through a team approach with graduate assistants. Services are based on the information obtained through planning meetings that are conducted at the beginning of the program with individual students and their families. Services are adjusted regularly in response to student needs, professor concerns, family input and interactions with the students. Taylor and I communicate regularly with students, graduate assistants, professors and parents to provide individualized support for each student. We also work with other support services (i.e., Disability Services, Housing, Advising Center) to address student needs. While the advising is ongoing, it is a joy and a privilege to see these students develop the academic skills, social confidence and emotional maturity to adapt to the expectations of college.
Q. Can you talk more about the importance of offering this type of support service at the college level?
A. As a parent of a young adult with autism, I understand the challenges that students with autism face as they move from high school to college. These young adults often have great strengths but need support to navigate the new expectations, social environment and independent living skills required in the university environment. Without this type of support, I believe that many students, including my daughter, would struggle to navigate these challenges. We feel fortunate that we have the opportunity to work with these students who often teach us as much about hard work and perseverance as we teach them.
Q. What type of feedback do you receive from students who have been part of AIMSS and what paths do they tend to take post-graduation?
A. We are currently conducting a study on our program. We’ve asked students to share through surveys and interviews how they have benefitted from the program and their suggestions for improvements. Our students report that program staff help them academically with time management skills and scheduling, completing assignments, connecting to support services on campus and communicating with professors. Socially, students describe how AIMSS feels like a family and how much they appreciate meeting and socializing with other college students on the autism spectrum. They also comment on how the skills they learned through the program have helped them connect with other students across campus. We have several graduates from the program, including both of the students from our initial pilot program. These students completed rigorous programs of study, including one who graduated with a triple major. Our earlier graduates have obtained employment, while some recent graduates are waiting to seek employment after the vaccine is more widely available.
Q. You also coordinate the Master of Education in Multi-Categorical Special Education with Autism program. What tools does this program equip students with to prepare them for the classroom?
A. Due to the shortage of teachers in West Virginia, many students in our program are hired as special education substitutes or on permit. Therefore, the special education faculty believe that we must equip our students with evidence-based practices that they can apply directly to their work in the classroom. We recognize that special educators must understand their students’ strengths and challenges to plan instruction that meets their students’ needs. We try to provide a balance of instruction from professors on campus and instruction from experts in our local Professional Development Schools and Advisory Boards. This collaboration between university professors and professionals in the field allows us to share strategies and practices that are both evidence-based and relevant in our local area. Our recent initiative includes a new focus on strategies for creating trauma-sensitive classrooms. Our trauma-certified educator will be offering two courses that our students and local teachers can take to address the needs of k-12 students who have experienced trauma due to Covid-19, the opioid epidemic or other events in their lives.
Q. What do you hope your students (those in both the master’s program and AIMSS) gain from their time at Fairmont State?
A. I firmly believe that given the right support, every student who enters the door or registers for an online course at Fairmont State University has the potential to be successful. I hope that our students learn that college is not a checklist of items to complete but a process of learning and growing. This process will challenge them academically, socially and emotionally, but the process will help them develop skills that are necessary for success in their work and personal lives. I want our students to realize that they need to take part in new experiences and consider novel ideas to learn and grow. I also hope that our students will recognize that real learning takes effort and that they should be willing to seek help when they need support. For example, recent events highlight how our education majors show resilience and determination in frustrating situations. Not only were they asked to learn how to use multiple new technology tools very quickly during the pandemic, but they were also expected to teach online, virtually and face-to-face, sometimes all at the same time! They navigated between virtual platforms and technology tools while maintaining a positive learning environment and meaningful connections to students. Their consistent effort, willingness to tackle new challenges and their belief in their ability to remove barriers lead to their success. I hope that our students continue to embrace these challenges and those new, inevitable changes that they will encounter when they leave Fairmont State.