Education Majors Studying Special Education Gain Hands-On Travel Instruction Experience Through Partnership with the Pathfinder School
"This is the real-world, hands-on experience that students cannot learn while sitting in a classroom. While the learning that goes on in the classroom is important, students have an opportunity to take the theory and put it into practice."
As an elementary education major seeking certification in special education, Kaitlyn Caiarelli '24 has already gained experience working with special education students representing various age groups and abilities, from kindergarten students to adults, throughout her time at Point Park.
"I have been able to teach valuable lessons to students, working on topics that range from verbal skills like naming aloud an object that is pictured on a card, to math skills like calculating the change that is needed to give out after a purchase," said Caiarelli, an alumna of Steel Valley High School. "From observing in a variety of classrooms to teaching lessons, Point Park has very much prepared me to run a classroom when I student-teach this spring."
One such experience that has helped Caiarelli build confidence as she enters the teaching field is Point Park's collaboration with the Pathfinder School, operated by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which serves 5- to 21-year-old special education students throughout Allegheny, Butler, Beaver, Greene and Washington counties. With the Pathfinder School's help, Point Park students interested in special education careers have learned and practiced travel instruction, which entails teaching students with disabilities other than blindness or visual impairment the skills needed to travel safely and efficiently within their home, school and community environments. Point Park students had classroom time with Pathfinder educators and students and even had the opportunity to accompany Pathfinder students on several trips, including a visit to the pumpkin patch at Simmons Farm and traveling on the Pittsburgh Light Rail and Duquesne Incline.
"Working with the students at Pathfinder has been a completely different experience than any of my other field placements," Caiarelli said. "It allowed me to strengthen skills such as patience, empathy and understanding as I assisted students with disabilities that I have never worked with before. It also allowed me to travel outside of a school environment with students and assist them with safety practices and procedures that they will need to implement in their everyday lives, such as catching the bus or crossing the street. By mastering these skills, students grow their independence."
At Point Park, the School of Education's approach to teaching special education is distinct in that faculty have worked as special educators in various schools across the Commonwealth, said Arleen Wheat, Ed.D., professor of special education.
"These instructors share real-life experiences and connect students with teachers and professionals around the area," Dr. Wheat said. "Hands-on teaching experiences like our collaboration with the Pathfinder School are invaluable to students because when they are immersed in the classroom activities, they understand what teaching is all about."
One year, Dr. Wheat had a student participate in class activities at Pathfinder, during which they worked with a teacher, paraprofessionals and students as an experiential learning opportunity.
"I will never forget the reflection they wrote about this experience," she said. "They discovered a passion for teaching deep within themselves they never felt before. I want our students to fall in love with becoming a teacher. For this student, this feeling remained undiscovered until they had an experience working with the students within the classroom."
Dr. Wheat brings a wealth of special education experience to the classroom and also volunteers as a board member of the Consortium for Educational Advancement of Travel Instruction (CEATI), which promotes the continuing development of the field of travel instruction through research, education, advocacy, the development of professional standards and certification. Connecting Point Park students to real teaching moments in special education classrooms prior to graduation is a priority for Dr. Wheat.
"Participating in classroom instruction and specifically travel instruction demonstrates the valuable skills that students with disabilities need beyond the classroom especially when they transition to adult post-secondary life," she said. "When teachers understand the skills students need, they can better prepare them for when they graduate."
Nick Fratto, principal of Pathfinder, said the school has enjoyed hosting Point Park students every year.
"The students are always well-prepared and seem excited to come to the classrooms and work directly with our students," he said. "This provides our teachers with much-needed support. In many cases, students have such a positive experience in our school while working with our students and staff they decide that they want to pursue a career at the Pathfinder School."
Fratto said Point Park's School of Education professors are very well-respected in the field of education.
"Point Park is the only university with whom I have engaged that provides this type of opportunity for its students," he said. "In our case, students have the opportunity to receive real-world experience working with students with very complex educational needs. This is a unique opportunity for students to get a feel for what it is like to be a special educator over an extended period."
Instructor Lori Sutton had students in her Intensive Interventions for Reading, Writing and Mathematics class work with Pathfinder this year.
"This is an example of Point Park's commitment to real-world experience," she said. "It’s always good for our students, whether they're undergraduate or graduate students, to see what instruction looks like, whether that's travel instruction or intensive reading interventions and getting out into a classroom to do an observation or interviewing other professionals in the field. That’s a nice part of Point Park's education degree programs. We get them into actual schools. Our students benefit, and the students in those classrooms benefit, too. It's a two-way street."
Kristen Misutka, Ph.D., assistant professor of education, had students in her Secondary Transitions and Processes course work with Pathfinder. Michael Beigay, a travel instructor with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit based out of Pathfinder, arranged a meet-and-greet between Dr. Misutka's students and Pathfinder students.
"Mr. Beigay's class took the T to Point Park, and my students created a bulletin board for the students to welcome them," she said. "We spent time getting to know each other, and Mr. Beigay and the students gave a presentation about travel training and what my students should expect. We had lunch and dessert, which gave us all the time to get to know each other. It was an awesome day for everyone."
Then each week, pairs of Point Park students met with Mr. Beigay and the students at Pathfinder to go out into the community together.
"One set of students took the T light rail to Mt. Washington, and another student went with the students to Target," Dr. Misutka said. "Each experience provided my students with a model of what travel training instruction should look like."
"This is the real-world, hands-on experience that students cannot learn while sitting in a classroom," she said. "While the learning that goes on in the classroom is important, students have an opportunity to take the theory and put it into practice. The students were able to see that not everything goes according to plan. For example, one week the students were planning on taking the T to one location only to find out that that part of the T was closed, so the day had to be completely readjusted."
Misutka added that this was an especially valuable and eye-opening experience for Point Park students who haven't worked with special education students yet.
"Now, one of the students is going to student-teach at Pathfinder, another is going to be student-teaching in a life skills classroom, and another student is going to be in an autistic support classroom," she said.
Marissa Hillinski '24, a special education major and alumna of Deer Lakes High School, had not previously heard about travel instruction but her experience with Pathfinder piqued her interest.
"Studying special education at Point Park has allowed me to have multiple, different field experiences in multiple, different schools and classrooms," she said. "This will help me prepare for when I have my own classroom in the future."
She recommends Point Park to any student aspiring to work in the education field.
"All the professors truly care about their students and want their students to be successful," she said. "The classes are small, allowing students to get to know not only their professors but their classmates, too. Everyone I have encountered here has been really helpful and extremely welcoming."