Treasure Valley school districts scramble to find special-education teachers

Mary Staley drove through Boise on the way to see her brother in Seattle. She and her husband thought the area was beautiful. They thought they might like to move here some day.

Staley was a certified special-education teacher at a Fort Worth, Texas, charter school. Early last month, she inquired about job opportunities in the Boise School District. She anticipated spending this school year at her Texas job.

“We were willing to wait a year,” she said. “That was the plan.”

But the district contacted her immediately. She went through two phone interviews and a third interview on a video call. She was hired that same day.

Now Staley is the structured learning center’s special-ed teacher at Hillside Junior High School. She is in charge of five students and works with them on math, reading, science and language.

The Boise School District, one of the highest-paying public districts in Idaho, can’t hire special-ed teachers fast enough. It scrambled this summer to fill 23 such teaching jobs.

“She was a good find. That’s why we move quickly,” said Betty Olson, the district’s administrator of special education.

Districts across Idaho face the same problem. The scarcity of special-education teachers is hurting schools from West Ada, the state’s largest district, with 37,000 students, to Council, a logging town northwest of Boise with 240 students.

Forty-nine states report difficulty hiring special-ed teachers. Ninety-one percent of poor school districts say they struggle to staff the classrooms, said George Giuliani, executive director of the National Association of Special Education Teachers.

Across the country 600,000 people are certified as special-education teachers, but not all teach in that discipline, Giuliani said. In the past six years, the number of special-ed jobs has grown by 10,000 per year.

Idaho had about 1,100 instructors teaching special education in 2013-14, the latest year for which figures are available. The state has about 24,000 special-education students.

The shortage has forced some Idaho schools to hire teachers not certified in special education, or in some cases not certified as teachers at all.

To help, Idaho has developed a few ways people can become special-ed teachers without the certification, including embarking on a state-approved plan that allows them into the classroom while they are on track to complete their certifications over three years.

Two programs in Idaho are putting about 250 teachers through alternative routes to certification outside of a traditional college education.. They may combine online instruction, some testing or the use of mentors to obtain an interim credential. Once in the classroom, the students work toward earning a renewable credential within two or three years.

Boise State University also began an online program this summer that squeezes a two-year master’s degree program in special education into one year. The program has 13 students who plan to work in schools and seven planning to work in early childhood education. Eighteen of the 20 students are from Idaho.

“We’re trying to fill a hole,” said Evelyn Johnson, a Boise State professor and executive director of the Lee Pesky Learning Center.

Why is there a shortage?

Special education may be the toughest teaching job. Teachers work with students who have an array of disabilities, including Down syndrome, cerebral palsy or autism. The work is hard. The gains can be slight.

At Hillside, Staley works with students such as Meredith Bacon, 12. Staley helps Meredith learn to use an iPad to communicate needs such as wanting a snack or understanding her schedule for the day.

“I am just there helping them find their place,” Staley said.

Special-education teachers are “like the firefighters or the special forces or the Marines of the education task force,” said Michael Humphrey, chairman of the early childhood and special-education department at Boise State.

“The districts are having such a hard time finding people that want to do this work,” Humphrey said. “A lot of the time you feel like you are just carrying water uphill in your hands.”

Burnout is a problem. The average special-education teacher stays on the job about 2 1/2 years, Humphrey said. Some get out of the profession altogether. Others stow their certifications and take jobs in regular classrooms.

The job is also loaded with paperwork. Teachers may write individual education plans for students, set goals and compile moment-by-moment logs on student work throughout the day.

“I lose a lot of teachers (who say), ‘I don’t have to do the same amount of paperwork’ ” in a regular classroom, said Stephanie Carpenter, the Caldwell School District’s special-education director.

And there are other tensions. Teachers go into it because they have a passion for the students, but they often find themselves under the constant threat of litigation, because special education is covered by strict state and the federal laws, including the federal Individual with Disabilities Education Act.

Filling the classroom

Boise has 160 teaching positions for its 3,000 special-education students. The West Ada School District has 190 for its 3,600 students. West Ada had to fill 37 jobs this summer and finally did.

But the Council School District had one of the toughest tasks of all: trying to find just one teacher for the 17 special-education students in its elementary school.

After Council’s elementary school principal retired this summer, the school’s special-education teacher replaced him. Murray Dalgleish, the superintendent for 14 years, was not concerned, because he had lined up a successor. At the last moment, however, the applicant turned the district down.

“We knew we were in trouble,” Dalgleish said.

He found a second applicant from Vermont looking to move out West. “I did everything I could to sell her on a rural area,” he said. But the district was unable to find a place for her husband, a math teacher.

By late August, a week before school was scheduled to start, Dalgleish had no prospects.

Then he heard about a student at Lewis-Clark State College in her last year of pursuing a degree in special education. Dalgleish hired her.

“I feel fortunate to be able to get someone who will be a very good teacher in time,” he said.

Dalgleish knows he is putting someone new into a highly stressful job. He expects to pay up to $5,000 for a mentor to work with her and give her support.

“You can really stress out a new teacher,” he said.

Finding teachers can be tough for a district like Council. It is two hours from the Treasure Valley. Dalgleish pays only what the state allots for a teachers: $32,700 for a beginner. Boise pays about $2,300 more.

For small districts struggling to compete with larger ones for teachers, “it’s only going to be worse,” he said.

Alternative certification

Yet even the biggest districts struggle. Typically they hire people who are already teachers. Some have backgrounds working in special-education as paraprofessionals. And the instructors must be enrolled in a certification program.

Giuliani objects to that approach. “We would never do that with a dentist — (let) a dentist go work on a patient, then go get your dental degree,” he said. “We are kind of rationalizing something that is ultimately unfair to special-education students.”

Instead, states should look at ways to increase the pool of special-education teachers, he said. They should offer more money for those tough jobs, Giuliani said. Idaho typically does not.

Or states should pay for the education of students who receive degrees in special education if they agree to work in poor and rural district for four years, he said. Idaho education officials know of no program that does that, either.

At Boise State, Johnson said the new online program provides an option to rural students who want special-education degrees but cannot drive to college daily. If it works, educators can “start addressing the high attrition and turnover and start getting out in front of the problems,” she said.

Meanwhile, Olson, Boise’s special-education administrator, is in constant hiring mode. Whenever she talks to groups or is out meeting with people, she talks about the need for more teachers. Her goal is “a surplus of special-education teachers.”