WCU’s special education program has a long history and deep roots


When Carl Dan Killian Sr. became head of the education and psychology department in 1935, Western Carolina had no special education program. That changed as Killian became increasingly concerned with underachieving students at public schools across Western North Carolina. Some had the ability to do well in school but were not. Some labeled “mentally retarded” were working “far below their level,” wrote Killian in a retrospective of his 33 years at WCU. He called them the “forgotten children.” As Western Carolina programs for intellectually gifted children and children with learning and intellectual disabilities developed under his leadership, so did the university’s curriculum in special education. “We try to develop good work habits and study habits, and to challenge each student to do his best,” wrote Killian, who colleague Jay Hickes called “Mr. Special Education.”

WCU special education students including Scott Hurdt ’10 work
closely with children in the community. Top left, Carl Dan Killian Sr.
developed WCU’s special education curriculum.

Such was the spirit in which Western Carolina’s program designed to prepare special education teachers developed – a service-oriented, hands-on program that director Lisa Bloom says continues to grow rapidly today. In response to the critical need at the state and national level for special education teachers, WCU’s program has gone from an average enrollment of 30 undergraduate and 15 graduate students to 75 undergraduate and more than 150 graduate students in the last 20 years.

“We have an innovative program that helps teachers not only bring what has been learned from years of research in education to life in the classroom, but also be innovators and researchers themselves for the benefit of children and youth with disabilities,” said Bloom. “For a large number of students in public schools, for various reasons, learning is a sometimes painful, often unsuccessful process. Special educators offer these students persistence, hard work and a philosophy that all children can learn. They are the masters of making accommodations and modifications in classroom practices so that children and youth can be successful academically as well as socially.”

The special education program at Western Carolina is one of the oldest in the state and has a distinguished reputation. In 1951, the college began offering summer courses for elementary and high school students with intellectual disabilities or difficulty with speech or reading. In 1958, the program expanded to serve gifted students. In the mid-1960s, Western Carolina won grants to institute a day program for children with intellectual disabilities. “With an unrelenting sense of mission, Dr. Killian awakened an awareness throughout the educational systems of the state and nation of the special academic needs of exceptional children, and from these efforts stemmed the development of new techniques for the training of those who teach the gifted and the mentally retarded,” wrote the WCU board of trustees in a resolution passed in 1976, after Killian’s death.

The WCU special education program continued to grow in both size and stature, attracting faculty who were leaders in the field and who led state and regional special education organizations and efforts. In 1996, WCU’s program became the first at the institution to gain funding for an endowed distinguished professorship. A gift of $666,000 from businesswoman and philanthropist Adelaide Daniels Key, matched by $334,000 in state funds, established the Adelaide Worth Daniels Distinguished Professorship in Special Education. Key said the professorship was important to her because of her experience as a child. She could not sit still and was labeled “bad” or “stupid” because no one yet had heard of attention deficit disorder, she said. “I still turn words around when I get tired,” said Key at the professorship announcement. “I count on my fingers every day. I’m glad I’ve got fingers to count, but I proudly say I am not stupid. It hurts to be called stupid. It is my hope that this professorship will create teachers who will come away from WCU understanding that different isn’t stupid.”

David Westling, one of the nation’s foremost special education authorities, joined the faculty in 1997 as the first distinguished professor of special education. In addition to teaching at WCU, Westling founded the Teacher Support Program to assist special education teachers throughout the region; the Office of Special Education in the U.S. Department of Education identified it as a “program of national distinction.” He has helped win more than $3 million in grants for WCU’s special education programs, ranging from the TSP to providing financial assistance to students pursuing degrees in special education. His recent publications include a second edition of “Special Education for Today’s Teachers: An Introduction” and “Inclusion: Effective Practices for All Students.”

Program alumni such as Kathy Norris MAEd ’00, who works for Cherokee Central Schools, say they apply what they learned at WCU about creating community in the classroom to their work. Jennifer A. Diliberto ’96, now an assistant professor of special education at Greensboro College, says earning her degree at Western Carolina helped her fulfill a childhood dream. Diliberto was diagnosed in third grade with dyslexia, a learning disability, and struggled with reading and writing. Although she had some outstanding teachers, she had others who did not understand her needs and struggles. “I knew at that point that I wanted to be a teacher who would provide students with disabilities the education they needed to be successful,” said Diliberto. What she valued most from her experience at WCU was the variety of hands-on and service opportunities with children of all ages and a range of disabilities. “The highlights of my educational experiences at Western Carolina were the fieldwork placements,” said Diliberto. “I believe this was a real strength of the program.”