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Solving The Special Ed Teacher Shortage: Quality, Not Quantity

Jan 16, 2016
Originally published on January 19, 2016 12:36 pm

All over the United States, schools are scrambling to find qualified special education teachers. There just aren't enough of them to fill every open position.

That means schools must often settle for people who are under-certified and inexperienced. Special ed is tough, and those who aren't ready for the challenge may not make it past the first year or two.

Really good teacher preparation might be the difference. At least, that's what the Lee Pesky Learning Center believes.

In partnership with Boise State University, this nonprofit is working to overcome the shortage in Idaho, not just by filling vacancies, but by creating special education teachers fully prepared for the demands — and the rewards — of working with special-needs students.

The Pesky Center is housed in a one-story building in an office park near the Boise airport. It seems almost clinical, like a dentist's office, except instead of cavities and dentures, there are worksheets and flashcards.

Any given day, students trickle in at the end of their school day. They work with an "education specialist," tackling anything from multiplication tables to paragraph structure.

Helena (we're using only her first name to protect her privacy) is one of 100 students here. She struggles to keep up with other kids in the 8th grade at her school, so she comes here once a week to work on her reading with a mentor.

This one-on-one approach is the Pesky Center's bread and butter.

"All of the attention is focused on the instructional component," says Evelyn Johnson. She's the executive director of the Pesky Center, as well as a professor of special education at Boise State. "Like, what are we doing for this child and how are they responding and are they meeting their goals?

Johnson says the Pesky Center, founded in 1997, was initially established with one goal in mind: to help students with learning disabilities.

And right now, she says, one way they can do that is to address the teacher shortage.

For example, the West Ada schools, a district of more than 37,000 students just outside of Boise, had to replace nearly 20 percent of its special education staff last summer. That's 37 new teachers that needed to come from somewhere.

Often, hiring so many people quickly means settling for quantity over quality. And these quick hires are way more prone to leave the job after two or three years.

And so, the Pesky Center has launched a new training program. Interested college graduates can apply to spend one year at the Center while also taking classes and earning a master's in teaching through Boise State.

The program is called the Special Education Collaborative, and all of it — the training and the classes — will be covered by a scholarship from Alan and Wendy Pesky, the founders of the learning center.

It's up and running with its first two students. Over the next few years, Johnson plans to accept up to 10.

So, this approach won't fix the larger problem any time soon. Classrooms need to be filled now. But educators here say it may be the start of a long-term solution.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Schools across the country are scrambling to try to find qualified special education teachers for their classrooms. They are often forced to settle for people who are willing but underqualified. Educators in Boise, Idaho, are working on a solution to the shortage by training the highest quality teachers to fill those gaps. Lee Hale from our NPR Ed team reports.

LEE HALE, BYLINE: Teaching special ed is tough. But one place they do it right is the Lee Pesky Learning Center. It's an unassuming one-story building in the middle of an office park near the airport in Boise. And walking in, it feels kind of clinical, sort of like a dentist office. But instead of cavities and dentures, it's worksheet and flashcards.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How was school?

HELENA: Good.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What did you learn today?

HALE: This is Helena. We're just going to use her first name for privacy. She's in eighth grade and she comes in weekly to work on her reading.

HELENA: Decide, machine, government.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Excellent.

HALE: Helena is a bright kid but she struggles to keep up with her grade-level peers, so these sessions really help. And this one-on-one approach is the Pesky Center's bread and butter. Any given day of the week, students trickle in after school to work with their education specialist, as they're called. Anything from multiplication tables to paragraph structure.

EVELYN JOHNSON: All of the attention is focused on the instructional component.

HALE: This is Evelyn Johnson, the executive director here. And she's also a professor of special education at Boise State University.

JOHNSON: So, like, what are we doing for this child and how are they responding and are they meeting their goals?

HALE: Johnson says the Pesky Center, which has been around since '97, was initially established with one goal in mind - to help students with learning disabilities.

JOHNSON: Primarily because the lack of services was so startling.

HALE: And that lack of services is caused in part by two things. The first...

JOHNSON: Special education has become really bogged down with administrative requirements.

HALE: The special ed teachers whose jobs it is to help these students are often overwhelmed by paperwork, which obviously distracts from, you know, teaching. The second problem is that teacher shortage. The West Ada district just outside of Boise had to replace nearly 20 percent of all their special ed staff last summer. Often when you're hiring that fast, you're settling for quantity over quality, and those new hires are way more likely to leave the classroom after two or three years teaching. Now, the Pesky Center has no control over the paperwork in special ed. That's tied to federal law. But training teachers, that's the kind of thing they're really good at. So in response to the need, the Pesky Center is evolving. Along with helping students, it is also serving as a training ground for prospective teachers.

PRAGNYAA CHAKRAVARTHY: And then I got the hang (ph) with the S because we're teaching...

NICK GOODMAN: Teaching the suffix, adding the blend...

HALE: This is Nick Goodman, education director, sitting down with Pragnyaa Chakravarthy, a teacher in training. They're discussing the progress of a student that Chakravarthy's been working with. And the attention to detail is pretty incredible. They're discussing specific sounds the student struggles with, patterns they've noticed.

CHAKRAVARTHY: He said luch (ph) for luck last time. And then we're doing the diagraphs with the...

GOODMAN: And every now and then, he'll say off or uh.

HALE: The hope is that this type of training can lead to better qualified special ed teachers throughout all of Idaho. Here's the plan - interested college graduates can apply to spend a year training at the Pesky Center while also taking classes and earning a masters in teaching degree through BSU on full scholarship. It's all made possible by Alan and Wendy Pesky, the founders of the learning center. The program is called the Special Education Collaborative. And once the year of training is up...

JODI RILEY: Basically you go where the need is.

HALE: This is Jodi Riley. Along with Chakravarthy, she's one of the first two teacher candidates in the program.

RILEY: I hear the need's in the middle schools and I'm OK with that. You know, I can handle middle school students. I've got a middle school student at home.

HALE: Riley is the perfect candidate, recently retired from the military and excited to jump into a new career. But like I said, she is one of only two in the program. This is their first year and they're starting slow. But that doesn't mean they're aiming low.

JOHNSON: The end goal is that every child with a disability has a highly trained teacher.

HALE: Evelyn Johnson admits it's going to take a really long time. She's planning to have the program up to at least 10 candidates in the next few years. But classrooms need to be filled now. Not to mention that this is a countrywide problem and not every state has been able to find the kind of private funding needed for this type of program. But with the number of districts that are struggling, maybe they need to start looking harder. Lee Hale, NPR News, Boise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.