The number of special education students across the country is rising, but teachers qualified to teach those students aren’t — especially in the South Bay where soaring rents and cost-of-living are squeezing educators out.
The National Center for Education Statistics reported that the number of public school students that required special education services rose 14 percent during the 2017-2018 school year. That’s seven million students.
The shortage is plaguing school districts across the nation, including the San José Unified School District. In 2019, there were more than 3,500 students with special education needs and just 160 teachers with the qualifications to teach them.
District leadership now aims to fix this problem, thanks to a grant from the California Local Solutions to the Shortage of Special Education Teachers. The $1.4 million grant was invested into “Rise into Special Education,” a program that offers current district employees training and mentorship to earn special education credentials.
“We cover all of the costs associated with the tuition, the books, the testing fees, the credential fees, fingerprinting,” said Jacqueline Murphy, SJUSD’s director of human resources. “In addition to the financial support, they’re also working with our best (special education) teachers to be able to apply those learnings in the classroom.”
Starting this fall, seven district employees will start the program. For the next two years, they’ll take classes at San Jose State while gaining first-hand experience in a special education classroom. Candidates will receive an estimated $20,000 worth of financial support.
The program will focus on a two-prong approach.
“In special education, there’s not only effective classroom instruction, the first prong, which has a variety of ways we judge it. The second prong is effective case management,” said Seth Reddy, SJUSD’s director of special education. “Our theory of action on that, is that if we can build the skills to be an effective instructor, as well as an effective case manager, that is what students with special needs really need.”
Through RISE, Murphy and Reddy also hope to address the problem of high employee turnover and burnout associated with special education.
“One of the important things in being able to support our students is to have stability and consistency of the teacher in the classroom,” said Murphy. “With RISE, we intentionally designed it to be a two-year program for our instructional associates, to make sure they were truly ready to take over the classroom in that second year.”
RISE’s inaugural cohort starts this fall and the district is already making plans for next year and beyond. For the next cohort, applications are already open, with the goal of accepting twice as many candidates. Additionally, they have ideas for what they want to see the program achieve long-term.
“At the end of these five years, we can be looking at 40 to 50 more RISE candidates who are teaching in our classrooms, who came through this program, who got the support, who feel supported in their role as a special education teacher,” Reddy said.
Contact San José Spotlight intern Paolo Zialcita at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @paolozialcita on Twitter.