As the school year ends, parents of special needs children have one question: Who will teach my child next year?

Special education teachers are hard to recruit and retain, and the School District of Philadelphia’s current vacancy list shows dozens of special education teaching positions.

The District does some recruitment of these teachers through Teach for America and The New Teacher Project, locally called the Philadelphia Teaching Fellows. But while using these has met some success, these pathways can be viewed as a stopgap measure.

A 2007 Research for Action report said, “Too many special education students are being taught by novices who are in the process of receiving full certification… The pool of qualified candidates in certain areas, particularly special education, continues to be inadequate.”

According to Teach for America, 35 TFA teachers are teaching special education this year, 21 in District public schools and 14 in charter schools. All receive ongoing training at Chestnut Hill College.

The District has worked, with some success, to convince area colleges to increase special education training for all teachers. Betsey Useem, senior research consultant for RFA, said elementary education teaching candidates increasingly acquire certificates in both elementary education and special education. However, staffing high school special education classes continues to be a challenge, she said, and that worries parents who want to ensure that their special needs child receives the best education and supports.

Cecelia Thompson, Right to Education Task Force spokesperson, said parents are concerned that numerous vacancies mean disabled students are often taught by substitutes. “If you have never been in an emotional support class, you shouldn’t be there because you have no knowledge of the disability impacting that child,” she said.

The District did not respond to interview requests about its recruitment and retention of special education teachers. But Arlene Kempin, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers vice president, said the PFT has made retention an issue in current teacher negotiations and that talks with the District about hiring special education teachers for the coming school year have been positive.

“It appears we are okay for September,” she said. “Recruitment efforts have been beefed up, and the District is making every effort to hire highly qualified teachers who are certified in special education and their content area.”

But according to District data, the number of special education applicants dropped between 2005 and 2008. Applications peaked in the 2005-06 school year at 458, but declined by more than 100 in the two subsequent school years.

A big reason for the shortages is that few new graduates opt to teach special needs children. Once hired, many special education teachers transfer schools or assignments, or leave the profession, causing a decline in numbers. Meanwhile, the number of children with learning disabilities such as autism goes up.

Special education teaching applicants also must face extra hurdles to get hired, including taking extra coursework. It can be a daunting task for middle and high school special education teachers to earn certification in every subject area they teach – a requirement to meet NCLB’s “highly qualified” guidelines.

Carol Pate, chair of the education department at Chestnut Hill College, said, “Special education teachers are getting a double whammy—the paperwork required by their students’ IEPs [individualized education plans] and being held accountable for meeting AYP goals under NCLB.”

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