The father of special education liked to polka.
The late Dr. Samuel Kirk – cited by Illinois special education professors as coining the phrase “learning disabilities” – possessed a lively, collaborative spirit when it came to education research at Illinois, according to Professor Emeritus of Special Education Bob Henderson.
It was a collegial spirit that included invitations for polka dancing at Kirk’s house, said Henderson, first a doctoral student and then colleague of Kirk’s.
“Sam (Dr. Kirk) was determined he’d teach us how to polka even if we didn’t want to,” Henderson said with a laugh.
Kirk was nothing if not determined, especially when it came to addressing the needs of students with learning disabilities.
As a young man growing up in a small North Dakota town, he spent his evening teaching farmhands how to read. While serving in the Army during World War II, Kirk created a program for recruits struggling with reading and writing.
Later at Illinois, Kirk’s research – the first of its kind to study exceptional or special needs learners -- pinpointed gaping holes in curriculum for students with learning disabilities.
Kirk’s commitment to students with learning disabilities led to the founding of the first-ever Institute for Research on Exceptional Children more than 50 years ago, and a lasting foundation for today’s special education department.
“When you start tracing roots of current students and tracing their lineage, you see that so many people have these roots in Illinois,” Associate Professor of Special Education Johnell Bentz said of Dr. Kirk and his pioneering work. “Illinois was sort of a hot bed for the preparation of people who were doing the cutting-edge research, shaping the field.”
Kirk’s student and former Illinois special education department head Laura Jordan was one of those people.
An undergraduate psychology major who enjoyed the idea of solving puzzles more than grading papers, Jordan said she thought she wanted nothing to do with the traditional classroom, or the field of education.
“I had always said I would never be a teacher,” she said. “I knew I would have withered away as a regular teacher.”
Working with Kirk – equally at home with research or the classroom according to Jordan -- changed all of that, she said.
“He was one of the best people I have ever known to actually apply the scientific method rather than making judgments about people or their work,” Jordan said of Kirk. “He wanted the facts, and he was willing to bring people in to give them a chance.”
That’s why it’s important for Illinois students studying special education know about Kirk’s legacy, Professor Bentz and Special Education Professor Lisa Monda-Amaya said.
Kirk’s tremendous influence on the field was the focus of a College of Education symposium hosted in the Spring of 2014, featuring leading educators presenting new research and ideas about addressing the needs of students with learning disabilities.
“We have to share with students what the legacy is,” Monda-Amaya said. “Our students need to understand the legacy of Illinois and how what happened here at Illinois shaped the field, and propelled the field in many different ways to look at disability differently.”
Illinois doctoral student, early childhood educator and Doris Duke Fellowship recipient Catherine Corr, like Kirk once did, studies the best methods in addressing the needs of children with learning disabilities.
Corr’s research examines the availability and working conditions of support providers -- speech pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists – and how those providers can affect children living at or below the poverty-level.
“The way that his work has influenced mine is that he really recognized that special education services were not meeting the needs of certain kids who weren’t really being served as well as they needed to be,” she said.
Kirk not only worked on improving special education curriculum for children, Bentz and Monda-Amaya said, but strove to acquire crucial funding and professional development for special education teachers as well.
Henderson said he remembers the day Kirk’s secretary rushed into Kirk’s office, a bedroom in a former residence on West Nevada Street in Urbana.
President John F. Kennedy was on the phone, she said, calling for Kirk. It was a call that would lead to reverberations in educational legislation.
Kirk eventually took a leave of absence from the Institute at Illinois to head a federal bureau focusing on legislation and litigation regarding special education.
Because of Kirk, Bentz explained, money was available to prepare teachers in special education.
“He was one of the key people to write legislation that is now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which guarantees all children, no matter what their disability is, has a right to a free, appropriate public education,” Monda-Amaya said.
Illinois students today continue to follow Kirk’s lead, working on research that may help develop more effective teachers.
Anne Butler’s research as a doctoral student focused on improving behavioral coaching with general education teachers. Butler – now a post-doctoral student at Illinois -- said her work involves meeting with teachers and discussing what strategies would help them best educate a variety of learners.
For Franklin Middle School special education teacher and Illinois alumnus Erik Immke, Dr. Kirk’s attention to addressing gaps in special education curriculum is as important in 2014 as it was for Kirk in 1947.
Immke teaches sixth graders in Champaign. Special education, he said, is a great field for people who love being around kids and seeing them grow.
Immke is definitely one of those people, and Duncan Bruce – a 12-year-old student who Immke helped with organizational skills – noticed.
Last year Bruce wrote a two-page poem as his entry to nominate Immke in a nationwide “My Favorite Teacher” contest hosted by bookseller Barnes & Noble.
Immke said he was speechless when he learned that he won the regional “My Favorite Teacher” award.
Not because of the award, but because Bruce – the boy who earlier in the year was convinced he wasn’t a good writer – wrote a poem. A two-page poem.
“(Special education) is one of those fields you leave with a smile on your face,” Immke said. “It’s fun just to form relationships with (students), and I think it’s rewarding just to see the light bulb moment.”
According to Henderson, light bulb moments in Illinois’ special education department came as a result of collaboration.
Kirk would have coffee with students and colleagues, start talking about a new form or way to examine data, according to Henderson, eventually asking if anyone knew of someone in mathematics that could help them out.
“There’s no question about the fact that the (collaborative) spirit that was there -- unlike some universities where the professor sits on high and speaks the word of wisdom -- the attitude here was, ‘Hey look, professors and students together were doing research, were expanding knowledge, but we’re doing it together,’” Henderson said of Kirk.
“This spirit is still there.”
For more on the College of Education, visit the College’s website at www.education.illinois.edu or follow the College of Education on Twitter at @edILLINOIS or on Facebook.