Cassandra Willis receives Jane West SPARK Award

SOE Doctoral Student Recognized for Policy Work on Special Education

By Katrina Norfleet, Editor, AACTE

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

From left: Ashley L. White and Cassandra B. Willis, recipients of the 2018 Jane West SPARK Award.
From left: Ashley L. White and
VCU SOE doctoral student
Cassandra B. Willis, recipients
of the 2018 Jane West SPARK

Congratulations to Ashley L. White and Cassandra B. Willis (pictured left to right) for receiving the 2018 Jane West SPARK Award at the Teacher Education Division (TED) of the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) conference in November. The award, established in 2016, is given annually to individuals who advocate for special education in teacher preparation (e.g., government relations, letter writing, visits to Congressional members), and is committed to continuing this work in the future.

Cassandra B. Willis

Willis, a doctoral student at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education, is a Research to Policy Advocacy (RTPA) Fellow at the university. Willis has made several visits to federal and state legislators to advocate for the continuation of funds to support teacher preparation during the past few years. She was selected by TED to attend the CEC Special Education Legislative Summit on Capitol Hill, where she shared her personal story as a first-generation college student whose degrees were each funded by some aspect of the government—Veterans Affairs, National Science Foundation, and the Office of Special Education Programs in the U.S Department of Education. In addition, Willis worked with the office of Virginia Representative Bobby Scott by providing a special education perspective on the proposed bill, H.R. 6236, Innovations to Recruit and Retain Excellent Teachers Act, and with the Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute by briefing educational bills for Senate members.

At the state level, she worked extensively on the accreditation of teacher preparation programs and diversifying the teacher workforce to identify the barriers for teachers of color as well as with legislators to address the obstacles. As a result, former Governor of Virginia Terry McAuliffe announced several actions including Executive Directive 14 directing the Board of Education to issue emergency regulations to provide Virginia’s colleges and universities the option to offer an undergraduate major in teaching. Willis recently partnered with a junior legislator as a researcher for a bill addressing teacher shortages in Virginia in the 2019 General Assembly to address the funding and licensing barriers. Her advocacy work also includes a summer internship with TASH, an advocacy organization that seeks to advance inclusive communities through advocacy. Though no longer interning with TASH, she continues to partner with the organization on the implementation of the Endrew F. case, working with civil rights attorneys to translate this federal policy to action for teachers and parents.

Willis is also a Scholar in the AACTE Holmes Program. She is committed to lobbying for robust campaigns around hiring and retaining professors of color and incorporating inclusive practices into teacher preparation programs, which require funding support and possibly legislative action.

This award is named on behalf of Jane West, a national leader in developing and sustaining a national advocacy voice in disability policy and special education. West is the co-founder of the Coalition for Teaching Quality, a 100-plus member coalition dedicated to strengthening equal access to quality teaching for all students. Formerly the staff director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Disability Policy, West holds a Ph.D. in special education and currently serves as a consultant to AACTE.