COEHS’s Special Education Department enhances program flexibility: UNM Newsroom

Earning a degree for one of the most underappreciated, yet rewarding jobs in the world, just got easier.  

UNM’s College of Education and Human Sciences (COEHS) is redesigning its special education programs to make them more obtainable for future teachers. 

“These new initiatives will help make our programs accessible to more students including those residing in rural and remote areas in New Mexico. Instructors in the Special Education Department come from diverse academic and professional backgrounds, and we are here to help students who have the drive to succeed at UNM. Special Education Department Interim Chair Professor Cathy Qi said. 

There are multiple degree and certificate programs taking the leap. It’s been a work in progress since the COVID-19 pandemic, but a welcome one in the long run. 

“We are poised to be able to meet the needs of school districts throughout the state and locally through a combination of these programs,”  Special Education Master’s Degree Concentration I Coordinator and Associate Professor Julia Scherba de Valenzuela said. 

Currently, there are two fully online opportunities, one hybrid opportunity, and one merging the two. 

 Fully online with class meetings using live video 


The Special Education Department offers two concentrations in its Master of Special Education degree, (M.A.). Each is taking their own approach to ensuring flexibility for students. 

Concentration I is entitled: Intellectual Disability and Severe Disabilities: Studies in Educational Equity for Diverse Exceptional Learners. Students explore leadership tactics centered on advocacy and support, professional development, and connecting those with disabilities to their community–all online during regularly scheduled class sessions held using video conferencing apps like Zoom or Microsoft Teams.   

That’s what Scherba de Valenzuela oversees. She has taken a pioneering perspective to this fully remote opportunity, moving beyond the scope of typical PowerPoint-driven lecture courses.  

 “What we’re doing is so important, especially in the wealth of instructional modalities,” she said. “We’ve also done a really nice job of trying to make sure our instruction is accessible.”  

This synchronous concentration also offers alternative licensure options– the only of its kind in the state.  

“We are training them not just for their classrooms for next semester,” Scherba de Valenzuela said. “We’re trying to provide them with the knowledge of how you build a differentiated and inclusive classroom that students can access for years to come.” 

Open forums are especially encouraged to highlight issues those with disabilities face at all ages, and to create meaningful policy to fix them. 

That’s one point of this concentration’s flipped classroom approach, a strategy structured around the idea that passive lectures can be replaced with live problem-solving. 

“It’s not bells and whistles that make education interesting,” she said. “It’s about the discussion and the well-planned activities.” 

 One graduate certificate program is also now fully online. The Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Certificate  can be earned while working towards a master’s degree, or afterwards. At the end, students are eligible to become a Board Certified Behavioral Analyst


(BCBA) – a critical certification for classrooms. 

 It’s also applicable for clinics, community organizations, private practice, and inpatient hospitals. UNM’s ABA is the only course sequence in the state verified as providing the coursework necessary for a BCBA credential by the Association for Behavior Analysis International 

We are trying to grow and get the message that our program is now able to work with and help teachers or any other specialists outside of the metro area with this kind of expertise,” ABA Certificate Coordinator Dr. Megan Martins said. 

There are 15 to 20 students earning this certificate right now, a number she hopes to increase especially in rural areas. 

“Right now that behavioral expertise is very limited in our school systems,” she said.    

The program also allows the field work component to be completed fully online. The fieldwork is still also available for completion in a hybrid format for those who are local to the university. 

 “That way everyone has opportunities to receive crucial behavioral support, be more included in their communities and have greater outcomes,” Martins said.  

Hybrid/ Asynchronous  

COEHS’s Special Education Program leaders think there is something to be said for options. That’s why they modified some degree formats beyond synchronous learning. 

Concentration II Learning and Behavioral Exceptionalities: Studies in Instruction, Curriculum, Collaboration, and Transition of Diverse Learners (M.A.) takes a specialized approach to the biggest issues plaguing the community. Master’s earners hone in on learning disabilities and emotional and behavioral disorders across grade levels. 

 This unique option offers an accelerated hybrid format. In eight weeks, students stack courses, to ensure an equal balance of at-home and in-person learning. There is also an understanding for learners who still must work additional jobs while earning their degrees. 

“This format has had a lot of favorable responses,” Concentration II Coordinator and Associate Professor Yen Pham said.  

 Pham said it’s more demanding, but extra focused. When the base work is knocked out online, there is more opportunity to get right to the action on campus. 

“You have to get going right away, but students do like that focus. When they get to the classroom, we get to practice strategies. That’s really valuable,” she said.  

It also still gives students the option for face-to-face interactions, something she says many still prefer. 

“It speaks to the variety of course options that address the needs of many of our students,” she said.  

On its way 


This is a move the Undergraduate Dual Licensure Program (Special Education, B.S.Ed.) is preparing for.

“Covid opened up eyes to different opportunities,” Dual License Program Coordinator and Principal Lecturer III Erin Jarry said. “This works for them.”   

 This program needs to shift five more courses online before being fully synchronous. Current students enrolled now will be wrapping up their degree this way in 2024, turning fully into a degree completion program. 

That ensures students complete two years of core classes, and follow it up with two years in the program. 

The synchronous and asynchronous options have generated immensely positive feedback. 

“A good chunk of our students come to us as educational assistants, so they’re working all day in the schools,” Jarry said. “Having flexibility to have classes online in the evening in this synchronous manner really seems to work for them. They seem like they’re enjoying it, taking a lot away from it, and it works better for their schedules.”  

A big part of what makes all these courses so special is the innovative approaches instructors use for teaching. It’s not just PowerPoints and assigned readings, but videos, podcasts and discussions. Students also have options to create their own innovative projects, rather than just writing papers. 

“This is another way that our department as a whole is really trying to be flexible, creative and offer a variety of options  that will work for the most number of students, while still preserving the high quality education that comes with us being the flagship university in New Mexico,” Pham said. 

Lining up new teachers is something COEHS has made an even higher priority in recent years. Across programs, there is an intense emphasis on filling positions in special education.  

The teacher shortage in New Mexico has been a crisis in recent years that the state and its schools have tried to fix.  

“We have been making a lot of efforts in recruitment and retention. We want to see more students enter the field of special education,” Qi said.  

 All three programs have partnered with the Albuquerque Teacher Residency Program/District Teacher Residency Program. That partnership just received a new boost for its residents, where student teacher residents receive a stipend of $35,000 over two semesters in return for remaining to teach in their partner district for a minimum of 3 years as licensed teachers. 

That has already initiated an increase in enrollment.  

“We need to recruit students, the future teachers of New Mexico, early,” Pham said. “Serving the needs of the children in New Mexico is really why we are here, and why we push for quality while still being flexible in our offerings.” 

 While raises and student teacher bonuses have boosted retention, it’s still difficult to bring in special education teachers. A recent report shows special education teachers make up the biggest share of overall vacancies, at an estimated nearly 200.  

“Our state needs dedicated special and general education teachers to make a positive impact on the lives of students with disabilities and their families,” ” Qi said. 

There are eight graduates who took their comprehensive exams this semester. This team, while trying to get that number up, wants potential applicants to understand the difference they can make. 

“We know that we can do this,” Scherba de Valenzuela said. “Our urgency is to make sure that our special education teacher candidates come out prepared for however their students need to be taught while recognizing disparities in the local community, to make sure all students moving forward get an excellent education regardless of setting.”  

Their effort is one which could drastically impact the future of the state. That’s why each of these professionals emphasize the importance and magic of teaching. 

“Teachers should be more appreciated for the work they’re doing out there because they’re not really, I don’t think. I would just like to see teaching in a more positive light as a profession.” –Dual License Program Coordinator and Lecturer Erin Jarry 

“I believe a strong public education system is the bedrock of a democracy and our civil society. This is a direct way you can participate in the development of a society you want to live in.”–Concentration I Coordinator and Associate Professor Julia Scherba de Valenzuela 

“Teaching can be fun. It has tremendous room for creativity and growth. You have a lot of control that can impact the outcomes of kids, and I find it intellectually meaningful and rewarding.” – Concentration II Coordinator and Associate Professor Yen Pham 

Learn more about each degree within the COEHS’s Department of Special Education at the Department of Special Education.  

There will also be an information session on an upcoming interdisciplinary training grant for special educators Dec. 1. Any interested educator can also attend an upcoming virtual information session to learn about the various master’s programs within COEHS. That will be Jan. 18, 2023 at 4:30 p.m.