Cindy Lane said she came to Kansas University’s special education department to help others like her.
“I wasn’t someone who easily deciphered the code of reading,” said Lane, who would go on to earn her doctorate from one of KU’s highest ranked programs. She said it took until a teacher pulled her aside in seventh grade before she finally was able to figure it out.
She became a special education teacher, and, like many graduates from KU’s special education program, has ascended to positions of greater responsibility. Today, Lane is the superintendent-designate at the Kansas City, Kan., public school district.
KU’s special education department consistently ranks at or near the top of the U.S. News and World Report rankings — it’s the top public institution, trailing only Vanderbilt University. The department focuses on research and training graduate students.
The department is tops at KU among grant expenditures, according to the most recent data, said Chriss Walther-Thomas, special education department chairwoman, though the department trades places with other research-heavy KU departments, such as medicinal chemistry.
This year, the department is managing $14.8 million in federal and state funding.
Its 75 doctoral students come from across the country and beyond. In addition to superintendents, its alumni have gone on to become university presidents, faculty members at other top schools and employees in the U.S. Department of Education.
When asked about the department’s success, Rick Ginsberg, dean of the KU School of Education, said it was pretty simple.
“Great faculty,” he said. “The key is the faculty, and it’s a group that produces work that has an impact.”
Those faculty include people like Don Deshler, a special education professor who directs the Center for Research on Learning, and Rud and Ann Turnbull, distinguished professors whose work in the Beach Center on Disability is among the best in the world on issues affecting people with disabilities and their families.
In a difficult budget climate, though, having an experienced faculty that has been around for a long time has negative ramifications, too, Walther-Thomas said. Budget shortfalls have made it more difficult to replace faculty who leave the university.
“We’ve had four faculty members retire in the past three years,” she said. “I haven’t been able to replace any of them.”
The average age of a KU special education faculty member today is 63.5 years old.
Lane said her positive experiences with the department were driven by those quality faculty members and research opportunities. She said she draws on her experiences at KU to help shape her current goals for Kansas City students, hoping to put in place a curriculum that will focus on college preparation from an early age.
“I wanted to help kids overcome obstacles,” Lane said. “I always keep those things at the forefront of my thinking. Student achievement is my primary focus.”