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$3.7 Million Grant to Fund Special Education Doctoral Program – News – Tennessee Today



Three faculty members in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s College of Education, Health and Human Sciences—Tara Moore, associate professor of special education, Zoi Traga-Philippakos, assistant professor of literacy education, and Kristen Secora, assistant professor of deaf education and special education—will receive a $3.7 million grant from the US Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs to provide doctoral-level training for future researchers and preparers of special education personnel. Their project, Researching Interventions in Special Education (RISE) Scholars Network, is a collaboration between UT, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and Texas A&M University.
Moore sought a career where she could connect with and give back to her community after completing her undergraduate studies in sociology at UT. She moved back to her hometown of McMinnville, Tennessee, and began working as a special education teacher in her home district. From there, she began her training to become a licensed special education teacher.
Moore became especially interested in students who exhibited challenging behaviors and learning difficulties. With funding from the same grant that is now supporting the RISE project, she pursued graduate studies at Vanderbilt University, where she learned more about how to serve and support these students.
“After completing my doctoral training, I was really lucky to be able to find a position at UT, a top-tier university for teacher preparation, where I can continue to give back to communities, teachers, and students in my home state,” Moore said. “I am thrilled to be able to offer this opportunity to our PhD students here at UT.”
The RISE project will provide support to 12 PhD students across the three universities.
Traga-Philippakos said, “I was contacted by a colleague at the University of Nebraska who was instrumental in coordinating the collaboration across the three universities. The goal was to submit a leadership grant in true collaboration with the other faculty and institutions.”
Doctoral students in the program will develop social and professional networks, learn from leaders in the field, and work collaboratively to develop, implement, and evaluate interventions designed to improve outcomes for students with disabilities and learning and behavioral difficulties. Scholars and faculty will have opportunities to travel to the other partnering universities to foster cross-university collaboration and networking.
The program is designed to grow a strong network of scholars, beginning with the initial cohort, that will change the field of special education teacher preparation training.
In addition to the educational and professional supports, RISE will provide funding to PhD students. Participating students could receive up to five years of funding totaling over $230,000, which will cover tuition, health insurance, travel expenses, dissertation support, technology needs, and an annual living stipend.
Ellen McIntyre, dean of the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences, is excited about the launch of this groundbreaking project: “I am thrilled we are able to provide scholarships for doctoral candidates to get the very best training possible through these exceptional faculty members. They will prepare these new scholars with the best science and a focus on the needs kids, teachers, and schools will have in the future.”
“My first childhood dream was to be a scientist. I landed into the field of special education somewhat accidentally,” said Moore. “But having the opportunity to complete my graduate studies fully funded truly changed not only my career but also my life in so many ways.
“Now, as a faculty member in special education, my work is centered around my interests and my passions: I’m a scientist, I’m a teacher, I mentor students to conduct research, and I help to prepare and support teachers to use effective approaches to improve student outcomes. I am so happy to pass on this opportunity to the next generation of special education leaders.”

Lindsey Owen (865-974-6375,
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