Award-winning research focuses on English learners with disabilities

March 3, 2022 | UHCL Staff

Award-winning research focuses on English learners with disabilities

For Goretti Rerri, studying special education is more than just her profession — it is her life's calling. After beginning her professional career in the corporate business world in Nigeria and even attaining an MBA there, her own child's diagnosis of autism made her re-evaluate her career path. She returned to college, received a master's in special education, and has been teaching special education in Pasadena Independent School District for 18 years.

Rerri is receiving her doctorate in educational leadership with a concentration in special populations from University of Houston-Clear Lake this December, and said she'd changed the path of her life because she wanted to do anything to help her child. "That's why I'm here," she said. "This is why I changed the path of my life."

Her research in this area has been recognized by the Southwest Educational Research Association, which has just named her the recipient of the Dean's Award for Exceptional Graduate Student Research.

"My research topic is about the experiences of teachers of Spanish-speaking English learners with disabilities and the impact of the students' intersectionality on teachers' practices," Rerri said. "I chose this topic because English learners with disabilities are caught in an intersectional gap. This means that they are learning English on one hand, and on the other, they have a learning disability. People from cultural or linguistic minority groups that are learning English and people who have disabilities have historically been marginalized. So, being members of two marginalized groups places the students in a uniquely challenging position."

She said the particular space between being disabled and learning a second language causes specific learning needs that have implications on how the students are taught and how they show what they have learned.

"Many bilingual and special education teachers are not trained to address the students' unique needs simultaneously," she said. "The bilingual teachers are not trained in special education intervention strategies, and the special education teachers are not trained to provide the socio-cultural and linguistic support that the students need."

As a result, Rerri said the students are caught in the middle of two separate disciplines, neither one of which can fully address the dual needs of the students. "There is a real shortage of qualified teachers who are trained in bilingual special education," she said.

Rerri explained that the deficiency of teachers with these qualifications has only recently been acknowledged in the state of Texas. "Only last year, Texas passed a law, House Bill 2256 that creates a bilingual special education certification in the state," she said.

Children who find themselves in this intersection between disability and language learning are not getting adequate instruction. "They're not making appropriate academic progress," she said. "This is why my study looks at teachers. We need to know how these intersectional needs impact teachers' instruction and what the barriers are."

She said she hoped the study would make education more equitable for English learners with disabilities. "The ultimate goal of my research is consistent with the requirements of Every Student Succeeds Act, which requires all schools to provide an equitable, accessible education to all students," she said. "I hope this study will help to raise awareness of the need to adequately train teachers to provide a more equitable education for English learners with disabilities."

Most significantly, she said she hoped the impact of her research would improve the emotional well being of English learners with disabilities.

"Research suggests that bilingualism, or the use of two or more languages in education, is a highly recommended approach for English learners," she said. "Bilingualism is generally not encouraged in many school systems. Instead, efforts are on making children learn to speak English, with little or no attention paid to the students' home languages and culture."

She said children learn best when they feel they can own their own language and culture with pride and use it as leverage to access the school curriculum.

Rerri added that the SERA Award will open doors for her. "I hope to advocate for people with disabilities in a non-profit organization," she said. "I had such wonderful support from my professors here at UH-Clear Lake. My research is what it is because of the guidance from my doctoral committee, (Professors) Laurie Weaver, Leslie Gauna, Elizabeth Beavers and Judy Marquez. And I received so much support and motivation from (Associate Professor of Educational Leadership) Antonio Corrales, who is the program coordinator of the Doctoral Educational Leadership Program."

For more information about the Doctorate in Educational Leadership options at UHCL, go online.