The heart of inclusive education at UCCS

Lissanna Follari, Ph.D., and Ashley Lawless, MA, are equal parts cheerful and stubborn. They are also incredibly passionate, fiercely determined and absolutely unapologetic about the success of the program they’ve poured so much into.

Follari, Associate Professor of Teaching and Learning, pops into the classroom where we arranged to meet for our interview in a bright yellow sweater, placing her matching phone and journal on a table. Yellow is her signature color, she explains, and I decide its bright tones complement her personality.

Lawless, Instructor and Inclusive Early Childhood Education Program Coordinator, comes in a few minutes later wearing a UCCS hoodie, laden with bags, and announces, “I brought charcuterie!” (She is, I think, the first person in history to bring charcuterie to an interview.)

Follari (left) and Lawless (right) at the 2023 National Association for the Education of Young Children conference

After the snacks are arranged in their tray and everyone is settled, we get down to business. The Inclusive Early Childhood Education (IECE) program, which Follari and Lawless have been overseeing for nearly a decade, has become the fastest-growing program in the College of Education. I’m here to write an article about how IECE is filling the teacher shortage in Colorado, something I’m under the impression is largely due to the amount of scholarship funds they’ve received.

I’m jotting down the numbers – $120,000 allocated for scholarships in the 2022-2023 school year, with 11 graduate students and 10 undergraduate students each receiving a little more than $4,200 and $6,200, respectively – when Lawless confirms the amount for the 2023-2024 school year: just over one million dollars.

One MILLION dollars. $400,000 has already been allocated in the fall semester, during which 37 undergraduate students received about $7,500 each and 19 graduate students received about $6,000 each. The rest is already slated to be given out in the spring and summer semesters.

They have also received over one million dollars to launch an apprenticeship program, now in its second year, with two additional years of funding recently secured.

They’re also in the final year of a $200,000 statewide higher education partnership grant to develop early childhood education preparation pathways, including credit for prior learning.

“So it’s almost two million dollars, really,” Follari noted nonchalantly.

“We’re going to take everything we can get for our students, and we’re going to be tenacious about it,” she continued. “We’re not willing to leave anything on the table on behalf of our students.”

I quickly come to realize the program’s success isn’t really about the scholarships. They’re simply a byproduct of the incredible amount of thought, effort and passion Lawless and Follari have put in to the program over the past ten years.

It’s not an exaggeration to say every single aspect of IECE has been scrutinized, organized and optimized by the pair.

From the start, they decided inclusive education is what they would “hang their hat on,” so when the College of Education merged departments (at the spearheading of Dr. Christi Kasa) to make sure every course was considered from an inclusive lens, they ran with the charge.

They added a BA to the program, which originally only offered a BI, so the university could join the statewide articulation agreement, making it easier for transfer students to join the program.

They ensured their entire program was distance-available, recognizing that Colorado Springs is a high-military community and that their students shouldn’t have to start over if they move away.

When COVID hit, they developed a remote-supervision protocol for student teaching that positioned them to be able to support students anywhere.

This year, they launched a state-wide apprenticeship program that allowed them to become more closely affiliated with the Department of Labor, opening new funding streams from the workforce development side of things, while also being a facilitator for immigrant, refugee and asylee students.

“We tried to make something that would meet everybody’s needs,” Follari said, she and Lawless saying the last four words in synchrony.

“It’s all about meeting student needs,” Follari reiterated. “They’ve invested their time and money and we’re not here to make it harder for them. We’re absolutely here to make it easier for them.”

“It’s all about accommodating,” said Lawless. “If you’re accommodated, and your needs are met, you’re going to grow, love and learn.” (Grow, love and learn is one of the many department taglines, a list that also includes “head, heart and hands” and “safe, happy, successful classrooms”).

The IECE program had the needs of its students in mind when it was designed from the ground up ten years ago. At the time the program was launched, it was the only one of its kind in the entire country.

“Finding a distance-available multi-credential licensure program is very hard,” Follari explained. “When I did the market analysis at that time, there were online programs without licensure and local programs without distance options, so it was an unfilled niche.”

But it wasn’t an easy launch. The program was developed from 2019-2021, and over the course of that time there were 26 revisions to the pro forma (five-year budget projections).

“I created it prior to COVID, and then COVID hit and obviously kept changing the landscape, so we had to be responsive, but fortunately we had always been looking at a distance approach and that only became more relevant,” said Follari. “And then in fall of 2023, universal pre-k rolled out, so a lot of things aligned, but they required that we keep moving forward and be responsive to the changes in legislation, the community, everything.”

It’s a lot to keep on top of, but Follari and Lawless are up to the task.

“We’re pack mules,” Follari joked. “We put our heads down and we do the work.”

Both Lawless and Follari described themselves as career-long “dumpster divers.” Lawless shared how she used to go down the halls of her school at the end of the year and grab old puzzles and easels that were going to get thrown out for use in her classroom.

“We were always scrounging,” confirmed Follari.

Neither woman has lost that fighting spirit, to which they attribute much of their success.

“We go knock on doors,” said Lawless. “Just last month, we went down to Pueblo and met with the teachers because we have these funds and wanted to show them what we could do. And we ended up with nine new applicants.”

Lawless is uniquely positioned to inspire future students. She describes her path to IECE as “a sob story,” but also notes that it resonates and helps her connect with a lot of their student population.

Lawless was told by her own mother that she wouldn’t graduate high school, and then a professor in college told her that she would never be a teacher and she needed to drop out – so she did.

In her late 30s, she had an opportunity to be a paraprofessional, but was told she’d need to take two classes, which was an intimidating concept at the time. She braved the classes, thrived and went on to earn the university’s first Bachelor of Innovation in Early Childhood Education and a Master’s of Education.

“It’s my story, but it’s a lot of our students’ stories, too,” she said. “Being told that they couldn’t do it, failing out of school, maybe they’re first-generation, they’re refugees.”

“And nobody sees them,” said Follari. “But she sees them. She sees our students and it changes everything for them.”

“I bring that with me,” Lawless explained. “Every transcript I look at, every interaction I have with a student, every class I teach, I bring that with me.”

Now, Lawless can inspire her students as a professor and program coordinator. “You can’t make that up!” she said.

Follari (center) and Lawless (right) with Sarah Long, College of Education Assistant Dean (left)

Follari’s more traditional path took her through every level of early childhood education, inspiring her to make the biggest difference she could for the most kids.

“I get up every day to make life better for kids,” she said simply. “I started teaching toddlers, then preschoolers, then elementary school, and I kept wanting to make a bigger and bigger impact, wanting to know that I could make it better for more kids, not just the 12 or 30 in my class.”

“We love children,” Lawless agreed, “and I know I’m doing whatever I can to grow educators with the same capacity.”

And that’s where it all comes from. A love of all kids, including each of the students – regardless of their age – that enter the IECE program.

“There is something special about the program,” said Lawless.

“People come from all over the state to be here,” said Follari. “They come because of this program. They have other options in their backyard, but they come here because we care deeply about them, and because of the relationships we make. Relationships are at the heart of it.”

“Kids deserve better,” she continued. “And because kids deserve better, they deserve teachers who deserve better. And when we make our teachers feel seen, heard, loved and valued, they will bring that to their classrooms.

“When we treat them with our own trauma- and resiliency-informed lens, they learn how to treat kids with that sensitivity, and it creates a depth in their relationships that changes everything.”

“And we model that here,” said Lawless.

“And that’s why they come,” finished Follari.

They come for the education. They come for the relationships. They come for the special something that the UCCS IECE program has that nowhere else does.

“You bring your whole heart to this, but that’s not all there is to it,” said Lawless. “You need a level of knowledge, you need the heartset, and you need the skills in your hands – that is a complete and whole preparation.”

“For us, that’s been a driver from the beginning, inclusive education,” reiterated Follari for the final time. “And we mean that so broadly. It’s not just about children with disabilities versus children without disabilities. For us, inclusion is about all those various ways of thinking, the ways of showing up, and allowing, recognizing, valuing and seeing each human being. All means all for us.”

All means all.

For Follari and Lawless, that means all the scholarship money they can get, all the accommodations they can make, and all the support they can offer – for all of their students, and all of the kids they’ll impact one day when they become educators themselves.

About the UCCS College of Education

The College of Education offers undergraduate and advanced degrees, initial and advanced licenses and additional endorsements across three departments: Teaching and Learning, Counseling and Human Services and Leadership, Research, and Foundations. The college is home to more than 1,000 students and offers 12 bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees and doctoral degrees. The UCCS College of Education is authorized by the state of Colorado to offer educator preparation and school counseling programs. Our graduate-level counseling programs in school counseling and clinical mental health are accredited by CACREP – the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Programs. Our undergraduate Human Services program is accredited by the CSHSE – Council for Standards in Human Service Education. To learn more, please reach out to [email protected].