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July 2009  |  Return to issue home

2009 Distinguished Graduate Award: Deborah Smith

The College of Education is proud to award Deborah Deutsch Smith the 2009 Distinguished Graduate Award. This award recognizes her ongoing commitment to educational excellence, access, and equity as an alumnus of the College of Education.

The Distinguished Graduate Award was established in 1986 and is awarded annually to a College of Education graduate of marked distinction. Smith’s contributions to improving education for children with special needs merit this prestigious recognition. A professor of special education at Claremont Graduate University’s School of Educational Studies, Smith’s teaching interests include special education, disability policy, and learning disabilities.

Pioneering Spirit

Deborah Smith
Deborah Smith

Smith knew at a young age that she wanted to dedicate her life to special education. As a teenager, she volunteered with children with disabilities, and then attended Pitzer College, all of which laid a foundation for her future academic work. After Smith obtained her teaching credential, she received a fellowship to pursue a masters’ in special education from the University of Missouri. Than, she scoured the country for the right program with the right people for her doctoral studies. 

As she states, “A pioneering spirit drew me to the College and the UW. I think its important to recognize that times were very different when I decided to find a doctoral program that would prepare me for a long career assisting students with disabilities and their families.”

She was particularly drawn to the cutting-edge work that was being done by Tom Lovitt and Norris “Norrie” Haring. At the time, these leaders in special education were working on the roots of inclusive education and educational accountability. “It was an unbelievable environment,” Smith explains. “They were doing work that no one was thinking about, like how to teach kids with disabilities effectively. So when I went and visited and saw the work, there was no question in my mind that this was where I belonged. And, again, I think students looking for a place to learn and grow today would come to the same conclusion.”

Smith’s mentors and peers have turned into colleagues and friends. She is still in touch with members of her dissertation committee, which included Jim Affleck, who was then special education department chair, Sheila Lowenbraun, as well as Lovitt and Haring. “I stayed connected with them after I left,” she explains. “The College is about people, it is not just a place.”

When Smith learned that she has been nominated for and had received the Distinguished Alum Award, she was celebrating with colleagues at the 2009 Council for Exceptional Children’s national conference held this year in Seattle. Ilene Schwartz, director of the Haring Center and chair of the College’s special education department, announced Smith’s award to a packed room at the Sheraton where the national special education community had come to share in Joe Jenkins’ recognition and pay tribute to Norris and Dorothy Haring and the re-naming of the Experimental Education Unit.

“I had no clue,” Smith recalls through laughter. “I don’t get speechless often but that was a good example. This is an unbelievable honor and an unbelievable recognition...this award means a great deal to me, particularly because it is from a place like UW.”

Getting the Information to the Right People

Among her current roles, Smith is the principal investigator on the Special Education Faculty Needs Assessment (SEFNA). While at Vanderbilt in 1999, Smith worked on a project to assess the supply and demand of special education teachers in the United States. The findings were bleak—there weren’t enough new graduates or faculty members. Her current work follows-up that project, which was released as a report in 2001, to re-examine the situation.

“Almost 10 years later we have been funded to see if the situation has gotten better, to ask if the supply of new faculty has gotten closer to what the demand is. So we are right in the middle of this comprehensive study of all special education doctoral programs in the country. We are also surveying all of the current doctoral students in the country and the last 10 years of graduates to find out about their work career choices etc. And, the final task of the study is to look at the teacher education programs, to see if they have shortages and how to resolve them.”

Smith is also the co-principal investigator of the IRIS Center for Training Enhancements, which provides higher education faculty and professional development providers with various services and tools for educating students with disabilities.

As she summarizes, “We are trying to ensure that teachers and others who work in inclusive settings and provide education to students who struggle, including those with disabilities have the right tools. We know so much about effective practices and we need to make sure that the next generation of teachers stays current, using the practices that researchers develop. We are fortunate to have the IRIS center, which has a wealth of positive practices that will help teachers and others. We had 70,000 users of the IRIS resources last month alone.”

Making a Difference

She is also the author of a major special education textbook, which is used internationally and has been translated into more languages, such as Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, Mandarin Chinese, and Hebrew, than any other introductory special education textbook.

“The theme is making a difference,” Smith explains. “Every chapter opens up with a piece of art done by a person with a disability...that literally shows that people with disabilities have always participated in society, have always made major contributions to society. There are also stories about private groups where people volunteer to make a difference, about cutting-edge research that has changed the world. This theme, in many respects, started back at the UW when folks opened the country’s eyes and said, “These kids should come to school too.” When I was there that was just happening and now we are constantly pushing the envelope.”

Smith appreciates the value of innovation and continually striving for excellence and social justice, principles embedded in her UW experience. Her work has improved the field of special education and the world.  Yet she isn’t ready to stop yet.

“The big issues today are ensuring that we continue to make a difference,” she says. “As researchers, we have a pretty good idea about how to make instruction better, but we need to get the tools into the hands of the teachers so they can use them. We always need to make it better.”

Past recipients of the Distinguished Graduate Award have included Dr. John Corbally, former president of the MacArthur Foundation, and Harold Morse, promoter of the Educational Television Networks’ The Learning Channel and Ovation—The Arts Channel.  In 2007, Drs. Lynda King and Daniel King, both UW College of Education graduates, were jointly honored for their nationally recognized work in the study of trauma and its effects on children and the treatment of those effects.  In 2008 we honored Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire for her longstanding commitment to education. 

July 2009  |  Return to issue home

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