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UT Professors Impact Community with Consultation

Published: October 06, 2010
When observing students in the Palma Ceia Presbyterian Preschool classroom, it’s hard to tell which students have learning disabilities and which do not.

That’s exactly how it should be, said Dr. Patricia O'Grady, an assistant professor of education at The University of Tampa who specializes in exceptional student education. She visited the South Tampa school as a consultant along with her colleague, Dr. Hunter O'Hara, a professor of education with a strong background in early childhood education.

Started in 1979 with Nancy Little as director, Palma Ceia Presbyterian Preschool is a pioneer in the field of inclusive special needs education. The school serves about 120 students ages 1 to 4, a minority of who have special needs.

“All of the things we are teaching our students to do, they are doing there,” said O’Hara. “It speaks to one teacher’s profound vision and commitment to meeting the needs of children no matter what their needs might be.”

O’Hara and O’Grady were asked by the school to provide guidance on how to grow the pre-school program. Little said the church-governed school was at a pivotal point but not sure which way to go. The school was bound by a small space in a neighborhood location, increasing needs from interested families and long wait-lists for classrooms that are at full capacity.

O’Grady and O’Hara provided a comprehensive study on the possibilities for the school in a report they completed in the fall of 2009. Little said they soon became aware of the school district’s decision to eliminate the prekindergarten program offered for 4-year-olds, so they turned back to the consultants’ recommendations and followed-up with O’Hara and O’Grady on curriculum selection.

In the following year the school administrators worked to get an expanded prekindergarten program in place and in the fall of 2010, welcomed 17 new 4-year-olds to the Palma Ceia school.

“Certainly not every college professor has the desire to help the community in the same way as these two,” Little said. “It was clear they had worked with community programs before and that they respected community programs. They were genuinely kind and put the needs of the children first.”

Last year O’Grady was invited to give a presentation at the National Association of Early Childhood Teacher Educators national conference in Washington, D.C., regarding the research methods the two employed during the Palma Ceia consultation.

“We suggested that when other early childhood programs are finding conflict, this exploratory method of problem solving is a model for early childhood education,” O’Grady said. “You facilitate this problem solving, the process. It hasn’t been applied to pre-school programs in any widespread way before.”

O’Grady and O’Hara are in the process of publishing an academic paper on this work.

Jamie Pilarczyk, Web Writer
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