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District finds special ed teachers scarce, so it keeps tapping Teach for America corps

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More than one in five of all Teach for America corps members in Philadelphia schools this year – 46 out of 213 – are in special education classrooms. By definition, these teachers are inexperienced and have received minimal training – seven to eight weeks over the summer.

Is this good for special education instruction?

TFA was set up to provide top recent college graduates to serve in classrooms in hard-to-staff schools where no certified personnel wanted to work, rather than suffering through a succession of unqualified substitutes. The shortage in special education has not abated, according to District officials.

While the District’s priority is to “hire highly qualified teachers in every subject,” this school year “special education teaching positions continue to be one of the most difficult positions to fill,” according to spokesman Fernando Gallard.

The 46 TFA members in public schools today represent less than 3 percent of the District’s 1,687 special education teachers. Gallard said certified teachers were not available.

Conventionally certified special education teachers in Pennsylvania must complete a comprehensive course of study combining a degree program at an accredited university and field experience in a special-education classroom.

For Joseph Ciesielski, a fully certified, third-year special education teacher at Olney Elementary, his studies helped him understand the laws governing special education as well as specific skills like writing an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Ciesielski went through five years of schooling, 190 hours of classroom observation, and 12 weeks of student teaching.

He said he regrets that his training at St. Joseph’s University didn’t include “more outreach from the District and a mindset of ‘Let’s make it easier for you to come work here.’” Absent that push, many of his classmates headed for jobs in the suburbs, he explained.

But he said that his coursework on disabilities and how they affect each child’s learning is “very valuable” and “sometimes undervalued.”

TFA corps member Julia Cadwallender, now a second-year special education teacher at Spring Garden Elementary, had her advance training crammed into one summer.

Between their acceptance into TFA and the start of the school year, corps members receive training materials, attend a summer institute aimed at becoming effective teachers, and do student teaching during summer school.

During the school year, TFA provides its corps members in special education positions with extensive resources beyond those provided by the District. These include information-packed websites and online communities, access to experienced special education teachers in Philadelphia and elsewhere, interaction with other corps members in Philadelphia, and graduate coursework in special education at Chestnut Hill College.

Cadwallender said she benefits most from the interaction with other teachers. “It is that collaborative, problem-solving community that I have really enjoyed being a part of,” she said. “I have built a similar community with general education teachers” at Spring Garden.

At the end of her two-year TFA stint this spring, Cadwallender will lose some of these resources, but maintain the online connection to other TFA special education teachers and alumni nationwide. She said that this and other resources will allow her to continue to be successful as she stays on for a third year at her school.

Both teachers agreed that regardless of what disability affects a student, a prerequisite for special education teachers is to approach their work with a focus on identifying and emphasizing each individual’s strengths.

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