$1.25M U.S. ED grant combines interprofessional training, early intervention services to infants, toddlers

June 27, 2024
College of Health Professions faculty Drs. Cristina Smith, from left, Lori-Ann Ferraro, Christina Pellati and Ashley Bondurant are collaborating on Project SPARKLE. Photo by Sarah Pack

The College of Health Professions Department of Rehabilitation Sciences has received a $1.25 million U.S. Department of Education (ED) training grant to implement Project SPARKLE, which aims to recruit diverse applicants, decrease the shortage of allied health professionals in early intervention and train future rehabilitative science practitioners to serve infants, toddlers and preschoolers with disabilities and high-intensity needs.

Project SPARKLE (pre-service preparation for allied health-related professions acquiring knowledge and leadership skills in early intervention) is a five-year training program designed to prepare allied health students to provide high-quality services in early intervention that support infants, toddlers and preschoolers with high-intensity needs and serve as leaders through advocacy in early intervention in South Carolina. The grant is funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs.

The Project SPARKLE program, led by principal investigator Lori-Ann Ferraro, Ph.D., assistant professor and director of clinical education, Department of Rehabilitation Sciences in the College of Health Professions, was designed to meet several objectives: training and preparing pre-professional related services students to gain the necessary competencies needed to be successful in a career in early intervention programs, like BabyNet; recruiting more diverse allied health student applicants into fields that will work in early intervention, contributing to decreasing the shortage of these professionals in South Carolina and nationally; training future practitioners to be highly qualified to serve infants, toddlers and preschoolers with disabilities and high-intensity needs.

“This program is the first of its kind at MUSC because it falls under the Department of Education and provides us as a health care institution an opportunity to prepare our rehabilitative science professions to have an important role in education as well. Although we are preparing future health care providers, we also have a very significant role in early intervention and the public schools. I think this is a great opportunity to marry these two specialties and highlight the importance of this expertise,” said Ferraro.

According to Ferraro, the program will provide the transdisciplinary preparation of 36 total scholars – three students each from the College of Health Professions’ speech language pathology (SLP), occupational therapy (OT) and physical therapy (PT) programs over a four-year period. Organizers seek to recruit diverse applicants, which include racial and ethnic diversity, disability and multilingualism and to train all Project SPARKLE scholars as well-rounded health care professionals ready to deliver services to infants, toddlers and preschoolers with complex medical diagnoses and high-intensity needs.

As an incentive to attract qualified students, the grant will provide a stipend of up to $20,000 that can be used to assist with individual financial needs, including a student’s living expenses. The stipend is especially helpful in recruiting qualified students who may struggle with the Lowcountry’s rising cost of living. Ferraro hopes to welcome the grant’s first cohort of students in the fall of 2025.

The goal for Project SPARKLE is for program scholars to meet five competencies: culturally responsive practice that employs principles of infant and early childhood mental health, transdisciplinary teaming to facilitate language and preliteracy skills, evidence-based practice, collaboration and leadership.

For the program’s first year, Ferraro is collaborating with the Project SPARKLE team, including Christina Pelatti, Ph.D.; Ashley Bondurant, DPT; Cristina Smith, OTD; and licensed master social worker Erica Martino; as well as state, national and international leaders in early childhood who will serve on the advisory board. Together, the team will build the foundation of the program, developing recruiting strategies, the curriculum and learning activities related to the program’s core competency objectives. Project SPARKLE scholars will complete three semesters of training and related activities in professional service delivery settings and in homes.

The curriculum will include training in evidence-based practices in early intervention along with infant and early childhood mental health principles, transdisciplinary teaming skills and specialty clinical and fieldwork rotations. After one year of Project SPARKLE training, students will have a better understanding of infant and early childhood mental health, be ready to provide evidence-based support to children with special needs and their families and serve as leaders and advocates.

Pelatti, an associate professor and director of the Division of Speech-Language Pathology, is excited about the possibilities that Project SPARKLE will bring to preparing interdisciplinary students in the field of early intervention and its impact around South Carolina.

“The training grant will not only enhance the experiences of our SLP, PT and OT students but also ensure that they are well-prepared to make significant contributions to the field of early intervention,” said Pelatti. “In addition to providing funding for students, it prepares students to embed their training and leadership to support young children and their families; it marks a significant step forward in MUSC’s efforts to positively impact citizens in the state of South Carolina and beyond.”

Bondurant, an assistant professor and director of clinical education, Division of Physical Therapy, is excited to participate in this grant, emphasizing the importance of collaboration with both practitioners and patients.

“It is also important for students to see the faculty collaborating and practicing interprofessionalism. If they are seeing this practiced, they will most likely mirror the same practices in their career. Also, if students are practicing this in their coursework and clinical experiences, they’ll find out best practices to make collaboration work. Working on communication with students, patients, families and faculty is incredibly important. Practice with this during their coursework and clinicals is also highly valued,” said Bondurant.

Martino, the associate director of Student Diversity and Community Outreach at the College of Health Professions, also is excited about the collaborations and workforce diversity focus of Project SPARKLE, emphasizing that the grant’s focus to recruit and support diverse, OT, PT and SLP students into the respective fields is mission-critical.

“The interprofessional education component of the grant reflects our college’s core value of collaboration,” said Martino. “In addition to the collaboration amongst our OT, PT and SLP programs, the grant will also include community partnerships and opportunities for our students to participate in community engagement activities. The strategic incorporation of community engagement will not only provide meaningful learning experiences for our students but will also build capacity for future grant collaborations that increase support for our students.” 

At the end of their training, Ferraro envisions the program components relating to training for future practitioners of early intervention to continue on at MUSC as well as for Project SPARKLE scholars to feel confident working with children with disabilities and high-intensity needs. “The most important piece of Project SPARKLE is the connection between health care and the educational system. Students have expressed a continued desire to work with young children, and this program does that. It fulfills so many needs for practitioners, children and their families around the state,” she said.