COE Connections Episode 9: Melina Melgarejo

February 12, 2024
Melina Melgarejo

In our ninth episode, Melina Melgarejo, assistant professor in the Department of Special Education and the Department of Dual Language and English Learner Education, discusses her work to better serve dual-language learners with disabilities. 

Listen on Soundcloud and Apple Podcasts.

Melina Melgarejo
I think about this this story a lot. So one of the families that I worked with, her son had autism, and I would go to the IEP meetings with them. And even though there was an interpreter, the interpreter was just there to verbatim, you know, interpret what was being said, not actually explaining what was going on. And these are immigrant families that have, you know, no understanding of the system.

One of the things that was recommended in the IEP was to read to their children at home and I could see the mom was like were like, kind of worried. And I was like, do you understand? That means that you can reach them in Spanish. It doesn't mean that you need to read. I knew right away, what the concern was is that she doesn't know how to read in English, and I was like you can reach them in Spanish like that's super helpful. She's like, Oh, you can. I was like, Yeah, you can. And so like, there was that relief.

So, yeah, we need to be better at attending to these families from linguistically diverse communities. Especially those that have a child with disabilities. So to ensure that they're getting the services that are needed.

(intro plays)

Rachel Haine-Schlagel
Welcome to COE Connections, the SDSU College of Education Research and Scholarship Podcast Series. I'm, your host, Rachel Haine-Schlagel. I'm the Associate Dean for research for the College of Education, and an associate professor of Child and Family Development at San Diego State University, a Hispanic serving institution on the land of the Kumeyaay.

This is our third episode of the season, and I'm talking today with Doctor Melina Melgarejo, who is an assistant professor in both the departments of special education and dual language and English learner education at SDSU. She received her doctoral degree in education with an emphasis in special education, disabilities and risk studies from UC Santa Barbara. Melina began her career, working as a clinical supervisor, primarily with Latinx families of children, with developmental disabilities. She is an investigator at the Child and Adolescent Services Research Center and serves on the executive leadership team for the California Autism, Professional Training and Information Network, also called CAPTAIN, which is a statewide collaboration of providers with the common goal of scaling up the use of evidence-based practices for individuals with autism.

Melina's research focuses on improving intervention, effectiveness and access for dual language learners with disabilities, and she is particularly interested in the implementation and cultural adaptation of evidence based practices serving culturally and linguistically diverse communities and forming community partnerships to facilitate change.

Welcome, Melina, and thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. 

Melina Melgarejo
Thank you, Rachel, thank you so much for having me and giving me this opportunity opportunity opportunity to talk about my work.

Rachel Haine-Schlagel
Yes, I'm so excited to talk to you about your work. You just do doing really cool stuff. So, okay, I have a few questions for you. The first question is, why do you study what you do.

Melina Melgarejo
Yes, that is a great question. And I have both personal and professional reasons why I've chosen my area of study personally. I'm first-generation Mexican. And so my siblings and I were actually all labeled English learners in school. So I have that personal connection in terms of focusing on dual language learners and English learners. And then, during my undergrad program, I was working with at risk, English learners and elementary schools. And so that really sparked my interest in continuing to work with underserved students.

But then in graduate school I was working with Michael Gerber. He was my advisor at UC Santa Barbara, and again there was more of a focus on English learners and those that are potentially at risk but then he also encouraged me to seek opportunities to work in ABA agencies. ABA is applied behavior analysis. And so that's a therapy that a lot of children with developmental disabilities receive. And so I became a behavior interventionist, and I was working with Spanish speaking immigrant families that have children with developmental disabilities, including autism. And I have to say that that was probably the most impactful experience for me in terms of what I've decided to pursue in my research.

There was no resources in Spanish, right? So I was translating terminologies on the spot and trying to you know, explain really complex issues in Spanish to these families. And then on top of that going beyond really what my role was in helping these families navigate the service systems. Right? That was absolutely probably the most impactful experience, as I said. And I really came to this realization that this population of children — dual language learners with disabilities — are really the most vulnerable, and I could make a real impact in helping them and their and their families. And so, yeah, so in terms of my research, we know that there's there's a lot of research, on how to support dual language learners. And there's a lot of research on how to support students with disabilities. But there's less so about how to support those that are dually identified as dual language learners with disabilities.

And so I really see that as a core piece of of my research and my work. And then being able to build a pipeline of duly credential teachers to be able to serve these students. So I'm very fortunate that I have this unique joint position in both DLE and special education and and be able to really influence the content and the programs that we have in the departments and have colleagues that really support and encourage that.

Rachel Haine-Schlagel 
It's really exciting that you have the dual appointment, and that you're working to sort of bridge these two related-ish fields. I mean, they're both talking about the same students and yet not necessarily talking to each other. Okay, my second question is actually a request. Can you please describe an example of the impact your research has had on the community?

Melina Melgarejo 
Yeah, absolutely. There's still so much to do but one of the first things that I think about is a project that I served as co-investigator on that was funded through the Department of Developmental Services, their service access and equity program, and our initial aim for this project had been to adapt or create resources on evidence based practices for autism for parents from linguistically diverse populations. And we were focusing here in San Diego on the three languages that are are most served besides English. And so that's Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese.

As part of this project, the first piece that we did was conduct focus groups with families, with family members, and we quickly realized that families were not that interested in resources on evidence based practices. What they really wanted were resources on how to navigate the service systems. So the regional center, the school system. Early intervention. And so in order to be responsive to this community need, we completely pivoted the project, and we were able to partner with other researchers at UC Davis to be able to create a series of presentations on navigating the different service systems, and we were able to translate that into these three different languages.

I think that's really what community partner research is all about is being responsive and being able to pivot to what the community actually needs. The other way I think that I'm hoping to make an impact is it's always ongoing, but it's basically going back to this joint position that I have in ensuring that dual language learners are represented in special education spaces and vice versa. I get a lot of opportunities to be able to do that. Whether it's presenting about dual language learners with disabilities at an autism focus conference or presenting about universal design for learning to support all students at a bilingual education conference. And it's also how I'm able to embed content across my courses in the departments.

And then also, for example, in January, I'll be attending the English Learner Advocacy Institute that's put on by Calironians Together, and it's it's educators that are involved in multilingual education. And I don't know if there's a sped focus, right? So I'm excited to go to that and see, is there a sped perspective, special education, perspective? And if not I'm excited to bring that.

Rachel Haine-Schlagel 
That's that's fantastic. Yeah, again, that you you are serving as this really important bridge and spaces where the other perspective isn't necessarily always being considered. And those are great examples of of community impact. And certainly the ability to pivot as a researcher can be really challenging. And you're you're right. That is the heart of kind of being a community based researcher. So that's just fantastic that you you're able to do that.

Now, I wanna ask you, what do you struggle with the most in studying your area. 

Melina Melgarejo
Yes, so there's a lot. But one of the things that I think about a lot, and this might be I from my implementation science training, is that we have these evidence based practices and strategies. But there's so many factors that we know, impact them actually getting implemented either whether it's teachers and schools or practitioners. And there's both these structural structural organizational factors.

But then there's also these individual factors. And so when it comes to dually identified students, I would say, this is especially true, that there's all these factors impeding implementation of of practices for dually identified students. Unfortunately, traditionally teachers are trained either in special education or general education or bilingual education. And so again, we're working in these silos.

And so I think one of the things I struggle with is having teachers be able to see multiple perspectives. Right? So I just had a director actually the other day tell me that an English learner student was being referred to special education, and so the teacher assumed that they would no longer receive English language development instruction since they were now in a special education classroom. Even just being aware of all of the supports that a student is entitled to and deserves. I think that's something that we need to come together and be working across the aisle, reaching across the aisle, even at an individual level with teachers when it comes to training and coaching.

For example, what we've really tried to do is reframe, for example evidence based practices for autism, so that they understand, especially like a general education, understands that these are high quality practices for all students, right? And so I think we're seeing this move towards being able to support all students, especially with initiatives like the multi tier systems of support.

Another thing that I struggle with personally is trying to navigate again, kind of going back to these two spaces and being able to highlight those intersectionalities between the two fields. And so, you know, I'm just constantly trying to learn, ask questions and absorb as much as much knowledge, especially from from my colleagues across the fields. And then. lastly, a thing that I don't know if I struggle with, but that I'm always trying to be conscious of is ensuring that I'm involving the community and the families in my work. And you know, as we're trying to move the needle that we're doing it with them by our side — and that can be hard, especially in academia, right where we have all these other pressures to be productive.

So it's something that I'm trying to be conscious about, and intentional in my work. And I've really learned a lot from my work in CAPTAIN and the family resource center network. So really about how to always have the community in mind and how to involve them in the work.

Rachel Haine-Schlagel 
Yeah, that's great. And you know, one thought I just had as you were talking was that sort of there's almost this parallel process between you, encouraging, wanting to encourage teachers to take other perspectives and your own constant need to take other perspectives when you're in a special education space to be trying to sort of bring your dual language learning perspective over, et cetera, and vice versa, that that there's some parallels there.

Okay. My last question comes out of my own background as a clinical psychologist which I often like to ask is if I could wave a magic wand and make education better in a way that you're working towards — what would that look like?

Melina Melgarejo 
So the one of the first things that comes to my mind is this dual credential program that we are creating. So in my ideal world, we would have teachers that are equipped to support all students. Right? One of the ways that we're trying to move the needle on that is creating this pipeline of bilingual special education teachers, especially here in California. It's a critical need with the teachers shortage and the population of students that we're serving. And so, you know, we're trying to create this program where our candidates will be prepared to address those unique needs of bilingual students with disabilities, especially in high need districts.

That's an ideal world, right is that we're gonna have teachers that are equipped to support all students, And building on that, also seeing language and even disabilities as strengths. Right? I'm thinking, especially in terms of language. We're still using a lot of deficit based language: English learner, dual language learners a little. You know, it's not giving English the power right so, but even moving towards emergent bilingual is a term that is being used now. And and this is true in disability studies as well, it's just really moving away from those deficit based terminology and moving towards a strengths based.

So I think I would say that would be one piece. And then also systems-level change right? There's a lot that needs to happen at the systems level for this work to to happen. And part of that is compensating or supporting teachers right? So that there's not that burnout, and they're able to engage in trainings and coaching and so I would say that there's a lot of systems level change that has to happen as well.

Rachel Haine-Schlagel 
Well, what you described sounded wonderful. Hopefully, we will get there in our lifetime. Thank you, Melina, so much for talking with me. That was so great to hear about your work and what you're doing is so exciting. I wish you so much luck as you keep moving through this really challenging navigation of two fields and doing really amazing work for our students in our community. So thank you. 

Melina Melgarejo 
Thank you so much for having me, Rachel.

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