District Desperate For Teachers

Special education department barely staffed; new conditions may
make staffing even harder
Gilroy – Special education teachers are so rare that even without an emergency credential, Katrina Strand landed a job at Gilroy High School.

The Gilroy Unified School District board unanimously approved the move at a recent meeting. Strand, who is teaching the GHS special day class, worked as a long-term special education substitute in another district, but she has yet to earn a teaching credential or enough units in special education to apply for an emergency permit.

GUSD Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Linda Piceno said she had to make the recommendation because special education teachers are “just not out there.”

“The demand is certainly exceeding the supply,” she said.

Of the district’s 33 special education teachers, three have emergency credentials and one has a waiver. There are also 11 speech and language pathologists, six psychologists and two adaptive physical education teachers working in GUSD’s special education department.

It’s already one of the most difficult to staff, but the job to find special education teachers is bound to become even more arduous if certain federal requirements are enacted.

Special education teachers may soon find out that they too have to abide by the No Child Left Behind act, which says that in order for a teacher to be deemed “highly qualified” they must demonstrate subject-matter competency in all core academic subjects taught.

For special education that would make things a bit messy. Unlike mainstream teachers who either teach multiple subjects in elementary school or one subject in middle and high school, special education teachers often instruct students in a variety of grades and disciplines.

Mainstream middle or high school teachers are considered subject-matter competent if they’ve earned a bachelor’s or graduate degree in the subject or completed course work equivalent to an undergraduate major or advanced certification.

And new elementary school teachers are qualified under NCLB if they’ve earned a multiple-subject credential.

But because special education teachers, particularly special day class teachers, work with students in subjects ranging from math to language arts, under NCLB they would have to hold a bachelor’s in every subject area they teach or pass the California Subject Examinations For Teachers in all core subjects.

“It’s unrealistic to expect that they’re going to have 32 units in each subject or pass tests in all of those four areas,” said Piceno. “It would be impossible. We would not be able to find special day teachers in all core subjects.”

Currently, legislators are discussing exactly what requirements a special education teacher will face under NCLB as part of the reauthorization of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The state and federal governments have to come to an agreement by June.

Most special education students are enrolled in the resource specialist program, which means they only receive help in specific subjects. Many of those students are in the speech and language program, said Marcia Brown, GUSD director of student services.

According to the most recent GUSD numbers, approximately 392 students are enrolled in the resource specialist program compared to approximately 200 in the special day class.

There are also 73 students enrolled in a county special education program and a handful are served through non-public or inter-district transfers, said Brown.

If the GUSD doesn’t provide a certain program, the district must pay for the student to attend a non-public school or a school in another district.

During the 2004-2005 school year, GUSD spent $7 million of its $151-million budget on special education.

Because students enrolled in the programs require a variety of extra services such as speech and occupational therapists, the human resources costs are much higher. The district spent $1.2 million on special education salaries and benefits last school year.

Another major expense is transportation, which cost the district $981,838 during the 2004-2005 school year. This year special education costs are expected to top $9 million. The projected budget for 2005-2006 is $119 million.

The state and federal governments inadequately fund special education but because both entities require school districts to provide such services, the district has to dig into its general fund to pony up the extra cash, said district officials.

Special education, and the costs associated with the pricey program, are here to stay. And as many of the district’s teachers inch closer to retirement a teacher shortage is becoming likely, said Piceno.

Since so few special education teachers are graduating from teacher credential programs, the shortage in that department is expected to be even higher.

GUSD awards special education teachers a $1,000 stipend and the district is looking into a variety of ways to attract more teachers to the area.