Alumnus Spotlight: Ross Faulkenberg, Special Education

A love for music leads to advocating for Special Education and literacy   

By Sherron Lumley

At a recent Latino Literacy Summit presented by Decoding Dyslexia Oregon, board president Ross Faulkenberg, an alumnus of the College of Education, welcomed his former professor Dr. Julie Esparza Brown as a guest speaker. It was in Dr. Esparza Brown’s Diverse Special Educator (DISE) program that he found his calling in bridging Special Education and literacy work with a focus on supporting culturally and linguistically diverse students and families.

“I am interested in sounds, language and literacy,” says Faulkenberg, who is a reading interventionist, English and World History teacher at Edison High School in SW Portland. This setting has provided him with the opportunity to work with a wide range of neurodiverse students.

Ross Faulkenberg, Masters of Education, is a 2021 alumnus of the College of Education at PSU.

“There are days when it is very rewarding, and there are other days when there is nothing left in me at the end of the day.” He laughs and agrees this could be the sign of a life well lived.

The journey began with music.

“Before I came to the College of Education I was a piano technician in southeast Portland for 10 years. As I was looking for a change in career, my first step was going to Ethos Music Center in North Portland, which is a nonprofit. For three years, I worked with youth from pre-K to fifth graders teaching piano, ukulele, guitar, and summer camps.  

“I was in touch with my community and working in music, which is so important to my life. I was working with all types of youth, including kids with learning and communications differences as well as culturally and linguistically diverse youth. I felt rewarded and confident about it and also served as the admissions manager for two years, which gave me the opportunity to work with parents, social workers, other nonprofits, family services and community organizations. 

Special education was an unexpected choice.

“Due to my strong interest in literacy and dyslexia, I took the Orton-Gillingham training from the Oregon Dyslexia Institute, which focuses on the science of reading to support reading acquisition. At first I thought I wanted to go into speech and language pathology. However, my undergraduate degree is in English and Creative Writing, so I didn’t have the science or math courses needed for the SLP program. My mom, who is an educator and administrator in Indiana, mentioned how important literacy and dyslexia is in all educational settings, so I took a closer look into special education programs.

“I don’t know what I expected at first. I had a narrow view, let’s be honest about that. This was based on what limited types of special education services were in my school growing up. I came to know it is much more far-reaching, and I now believe every educator should go through a Special Education program and an ESOL/DISE/DICE program to understand second language acquisition and serving culturally, linguistically and neurodiverse learners. We should be prepared to be educators for ALL of our students, not just the 40 or so percent of students who can benefit from simply broad or general instruction. Education and teacher training programs should be less siloed, and should focus on collaboration based upon data and community feedback,” says Faulkenberg.

“Especially in terms of literacy, folks in higher-ed must urgently work together to provide a cohesive approach to addressing one of society’s most pervasive inequities: illiteracy.”

Ross Faulkenberg, President of Decoding Dyslexia oregon

“Working with culturally and linguistically diverse students through the DISE/DICE grant program led to me working with bilingual Spanish speakers, merging an awareness of second language acquisition with English literacy instruction and teaching to both languages when possible. One of the most positive things that surprised me about the Special Education program at PSU was getting to know and build relationships with the faculty. From Dr. Shaheen Munir-McHill and Dr. Julia Esparza Brown, Dr. Sheldon Loman, Dr. Christopher Pinkney, Dr. Mary Morningstar, Dr. Sam Sennot, Dr. Melissa Pebly, Dr. Chris Borgmeier, and Lynn Coupland, I really felt those relationships and personal conversations and stories helped to shape and support my learning. I wasn’t expecting that based on my undergraduate experience. I got to learn so much about resources and research-based strategies/approaches and working with families to support students.”

Literacy for everyone

“Literacy for racially, culturally and diverse populations begins with policy shifts at the state level. There are far too many learners walking out of third grade unable to read and headed for potential negative life outcomes,” says Faulkenberg. “In my work with Decoding Dyslexia Oregon, we have partnered with the International Dyslexia Association Oregon Branch, Oregon Kids Read, Our Children Oregon,, and others to advocate at the Oregon Legislature this year for funds to train teachers in research-based literacy interventions and the science of reading. We have learned so much about how the brain works and teaching young learners to acquire foundational reading skills,” he notes.

“From historical, research and legal perspectives, there should be no reason that our state and our nation’s literacy rates have stagnated. We have proven tools and continue to learn more within fields of neuroscience and educational research that replicate much of what we have known for decades. We must act now at every level of education to improve literacy outcomes, especially in grades K-3. It is increasingly more difficult to remediate foundational reading skills at fourth grade and beyond, and this becomes an equity issue. Increasing literacy improves graduation rates, job opportunities, and decreases incarceration rates. Too many of our racially diverse learners are first learning to read in prison. This must be unacceptable to all of us if we are truly tied up in the liberation of historically oppressed communities.

“In the future, I see myself working in a leadership position to support awareness of Special Education law. I’m new as a teacher and I’m passionate to continue to learn myself and continue to be an advocate for teaching to various learning styles, and partnering with organizations, communities and parents. I would love to be a part of the effort and action to diversify the teacher workforce, flipping the script for diverse youth to imagine themselves becoming a teacher. Seeing themselves as the changemakers of educational systems that have not served them. I would like to see schools at every level innovate and be a part of that change.”


PSU College of Education Wins $3M Grant for Bilingual/Bicultural Special Education

Federal grant funds recruitment of diverse teachers, literacy and biliteracy work

By Sherron Lumley

Oregon’s U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley voice support for a new federal grant received by Portland State University (PSU) College of Education to recruit and prepare bilingual and bicultural special education teachers. 

PSU’s College of Education will receive $3 million over five years to build on work from a previous partnership with Tigard Tualatin School District, which currently has 22 percent English Learner (EL) students. The grant from the Department of Education Office of English Language Acquisition is earmarked for a project known as DICE PLUSS: Diverse Inclusive Collaborative Educators. Education Northwest is the program evaluator. 

 “This federal investment earned by PSU to work with the Tigard-Tualatin School District will help to build the stronger teacher workforce that special education students whose first language isn’t English need to thrive,” Senator Wyden said. “That’s a winning partnership for both education and equity in the metro area.”

Dr. Julie Esparza Brown, who will co-direct the grant with Dr. Amanda Sanford and Dr. Sheldon Loman, has spent the past 21 years of her career at Portland State University’s College of Education. In that time she has written or co-written grants that have allowed for 21 years of funding for bilingual/bicultural teachers in general and special education. DICE PLUSS was co-written with her colleagues and co-directors for Project DICE, Drs. Sheldon Loman and Amanda Sanford, associate professors in the school’s Special Education Department. 

“When teachers mirror the cultural and linguistic background of the students, their academic performance and outcomes increase,” says Esparza Brown. In contrast, Oregon has only added 919 teachers of color to its teaching cadre over the last ten years according to the Oregon Equity Teacher Report (2020). Special education, which is facing a national teacher shortage, is even more at risk. “There are very few bilingual Special Educators locally and nationally,” she says. “We are really working to add to the diversity in the special education teaching cadre.” 

PSU will partner with the Tigard-Tualatin School District specifically to continue investigating literacy instruction and interventions for multilingual learners. This work began through a model demonstration grant (Project LEE) funded by the Office of Special Education Programs. Project LEE was one of three model demonstration projects funded nationally to focus on literacy for multilingual learners. 

“Biliteracy is a core strategy for the Tigard-Tualatin School District (TTSD), offering instruction that leverages the linguistic, cultural, and social assets our students bring to class,” said TTSD Superintendent Dr. Sue Rieke-Smith. “Our TTSD staff and students have benefited from collaborating with Dr. Esparza-Brown and Portland State University on prior grant initiatives. We are thrilled to partner again with a focus on culturally and linguistically responsive practices for multilingual students. We are enthusiastic partners in this new research opportunity.”

Recruitment for DICE PLUSS special education teacher candidates is open to candidates from any school district and those not currently employed but who wish to become a special education teacher with specialized preparation to work with multilingual learners with disabilities and their families.

“Children in special education programs should have equal opportunity to learn and grow as students—regardless of whether or not English is their first language,” said Senator Merkley. “I am pleased to support PSU’s initiative to increase the number bilingual special education professionals in our schools and help address cultural obstacles many students face in the classroom. This is a critical step in removing educational barriers and ensuring our children are given the best education possible.”

In addition to recruiting and preparing diverse teachers for licensure in special education and the work in literacy, the grant will fund family literacy/biliteracy workshops.  

This project is funded entirely with federal funds, currently with an authorized budget of $599,771.00. The remaining funds will be authorized to PSU, on an annual basis, contingent upon available funds and the success of the project to date.