June E. Downing: Her vision and legacy in California
Dr. June Downing was a professor in Special Education, California State University, Northridge (CSUN) from 1995 to 2007. In those 12 years she created an extraordinary legacy in teacher preparation and inclusive education through her passionate advocacy, individualized mentorship, and tireless commitment. June arrived when the local school district in Los Angeles had settled a lawsuit admitting significant disparities in access and opportunity for students with disabilities. She seized this critical opportunity to revise fieldwork requirements and competencies for teacher candidates in the moderate/severe disabilities credential program at CSUN. Professional competencies included demonstration of collaboration skills with families, general educators, and other members of the educational team; use of authentic assessment to identify critical skills; modifying and adapting the core curriculum to meet individual learner needs; and infusing assistive technology into daily practice - especially in efforts to help students access and benefit from the general education program. She also modified existing fieldwork policies to ensure all candidates were required to meet these competencies in age-appropriate typical settings. These fundamental changes in fieldwork policies continue to be reflected in current practices at CSUN today.
June received three federally funded personnel preparation grants from the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). She used this funding to significantly revise the curriculum, creating three new courses designed to provide more in-depth knowledge and skills in working with students with significant and multiple disabilities (i.e., physical disabilities, sensory and multiple impairments, and augmentative and alternative communication). These courses became institutionalized and now serve as core specialization courses in the moderate/severe disabilities credential program at CSUN. These grants also provided financial support to over 180 teacher candidates. Currently, the vast majority of these graduates continue to work as special educators serving students with severe disabilities and their families, or are employed in related leadership positions. Her passion and commitment to serving students with disabilities and their families continues to live through the many teachers she trained.
In addition, June’s background and expertise in deaf-blindness continued in her work at CSUN. She co-directed two federally funded projects that focused on services to children who are deaf-blind. One was a model demonstration project that examined tactile strategies and the other was the state technical assistance project for services to children and youth who are deaf-blind.
As June’s reputation spread among families and advocates in southern California, many families and educators sought her assistance. She was devoted to these causes, visiting schools and families in their homes to provide insights as well as much-needed moral support. She supported families through due process cases, and when needed, provided independent assessments to contribute an alternate perspective on a student’s strengths and abilities. With the growth of her reputation in the area also came the growth of her detractors; some of whom resented her insistence on change. Although these detractors at times made her journey more difficult, June remained steadfast in her mission and was unafraid to take a position that was unpopular, as long as it was on the side of students and families.
In 2000, she joined forces with families and other faculty at CSUN to develop a charter petition for the new CHIME Charter School, to demonstrate the potential of inclusive education, and to encourage replication on a broader scale. The school’s charter was approved in 2001. June was there the first day, and consistently thereafter, to collaborate with students, families, faculty, and administration as they engaged in the challenging work of realizing the vision. CHIME has continued to flourish and is another aspect of her legacy at CSUN. As a general education teacher wrote recently on a CHIME message board:
One thing that struck me about her was her commitment to education for all kids. I remember feeling a bit overwhelmed by how new everything was to me. Her confidence that inclusion is the right way, the ONLY way to do things, really stuck with me. From that point forward I continued to use her advice in my practice. Namely, asking myself “what is the goal of instruction?” She is the person who planted that in my mind, and I will forever remember that advice.
June’s remarkable work includes her textbooks that describe how to implement meaningful instructional practices in inclusive settings, her approach to field experiences in inclusive education, and her commitment to high expectations for teachers. In recognition of her many accomplishments, June received the Outstanding Professor award in 2000. We hope to honor and build upon this legacy in a manner worthy of her memory.
June was always extraordinarily hopeful. Last November we discussed what often feels like a lack of progress as we continue to fight the same battles for access in our field. She talked about the changes she had witnessed over the course of her career, and those that seem to be on the horizon. She pointed out the growth of the self-advocacy movement and the increased awareness of the media and popular shows, like “GLEE.” Her optimism was uplifting and encouraging.
Although each of us had unique relationships and experiences with her, we all admired her unwavering devotion to social justice for individuals with significant disabilities and their families. June never apologized for her strong beliefs and passion and was always the first person to challenge practices that resulted in the marginalization of individuals with disabilities. In addition to her tremendous compassion, June also had a wonderful sense of humor. Department meetings were never boring when June was there. She used humor effectively in her teaching and professional presentations. Her laughter was igniting and infectious. It was a joy and privilege to be her colleague and friend.
Kathy Peckham-Hardin, Amy Hanreddy, and Deborah Chen
Colleagues and Friends, Department of Special Education
California State University, Northridge