Special Education Teachers in Demand

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009

Fairfax teacher Beth Curtis and her students planted seeds in plastic cups this spring and watched the seeds grow on the classroom windowsill. Curtis read from a homemade book about the plant life cycle.

When it came time to assess what the students had learned, she asked two of them to show her what makes plants grow. They reached out and pointed to pictures of rain, sun and soil.

Most of Curtis's students, ages 13 to 20, at Key Center School in Springfield, do not talk and cannot read. But with her help, they learn and develop every day.

Teaching students with disabilities is one of the most challenging jobs in education. It's also one of the toughest jobs to fill and keep filled.

Federal data show the proportion of special education teachers who transfer to other teaching jobs or leave the profession is higher than the rate in almost any other area of teaching. Nearly every school system reports a short supply of certified special education candidates. The high turnover means special education students are far more likely to be taught by uncertified or inexperienced teachers.

Over the past 30 years, the growth rate of students with special needs has far outpaced the growth rate of the overall student population, and college education programs have not produced enough graduates to meet the demand. Alternative certification programs are guiding more people into the profession, "but they haven't made a dent," said Mary Brownell, a director of the Center for Personnel Studies in Special Education at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

For those who choose a job in special education, the rewards can be high, said Thomas Flick, the principal of Key Center, which serves students with severe disabilities. The school's teachers have helped children move from using a wheelchair to walking and coached students to utter their first words.

Still, Flick said, "It's not for everyone. I have substitutes that come in here all the time; they walk in and walk out three minutes later."

At Key Center, teachers focus on life skills as well as academic skills. They work one-on-one with students to set goals, improve communication ability and foster independence. They also perform medical tasks, feeding a student through a gastrointestinal tube or responding when a child has a seizure. They help students brush their teach or eat lunch or transfer them in and out of wheelchairs.

When Flick was promoted from assistant principal to principal of Key Center in 2006-2007, he hired seven new teachers, a large number given the relatively small staff of 17. All were hired with a provisional license, giving them three years to earn the required special education teaching certificate.

Flick helped his teachers handle the demands of their new day job, along with night school, by offering feedback and encouragement and creating a schedule that includes planning time during school hours. He organized workshops on behavior management and navigating the maze of paperwork required by special education law.

Class sizes are small at Key Center, about eight students, and most classes have two instructional assistants and sometimes a nurse assigned to specific students. Specialists such as occupational or physical therapists are on staff. Parent or student volunteers help out, too.

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