Shortage of special education teachers prompts schools to join forces

With a shortage of special education teachers, the Black River Falls and Melrose-Mindoro school districts are getting creative when filling their part-time special education positions for next school year.

It is becoming a common occurrence for schools to come together to create a full-time special education position with a neighboring school said Cheryl Gullicksrud, the administrator for CESA 4 in Wisconsin.

“School districts are looking to their neighbors to fill positions,” Gullicksrud said. “When you have small populations of students and you don’t really have a full-time position for someone, your pool of candidates shrinks even further.”

Melrose-Mindoro and Black River Falls are attempting to partner to find a licensed candidate for an early childhood special education teacher position for next school year. Both schools were in need of a part-time special education teacher and so are planning to share the teacher between the two schools.

“It is hard to find someone with that licensure for a part-time position,” Melrose-Mindoro superintendent Del DeBerg said.

Gullicksrud said that special education is somewhat a specialty area, “There is a shortage, has been for several years in looking for people to fill special education positions. It is a specialty area of sorts, there are specific trainings, specific courses, specific work and testing that applicants need to get in order to get a license in special ed. Between the dual situation of smaller numbers of undergrad students going into education in general and special education being a specialized area, similar to our current technical education areas, there are simply not enough applicants.”

Gullicksrud said that right now in the CESA 4 district, there are a total of 74 teaching openings on their job portal and 17 of which are special education-related openings. That is nearly a quarter of the open positions, but she notes that special education teachers do not make up a quarter of the teachers in schools.

“There are fewer candidates for all of our teaching positions than say four or five years ago, but special education has been hit much more hard. We last year had hired two staff members that were under emergency license, which means they were not fully licensed at the time and needed to complete education programs,” Black River Falls superintendent Shelly Severson said. Severson has already hired another special education teacher on an emergency license this year.

Gullicksrud agreed that there are many schools that are hiring special education teachers on emergency or temporary licenses.

Severson thinks one of the major hurdles for special education teachers is that they are limited on the use of alternative license pathways to get a license because these positions are funded by federal sources, which comes with more restrictions due to special education laws.

She also points to several key differences from being a traditional teacher, “There is a lot more paperwork involved with being a special education teacher, the amount of accountability to the kids on that caseload, all of that is intensified.”

Severson said that she thinks this problem is also directly impacted by a reduction in the number of people getting undergraduate teaching degrees. Severson has seen applications for first grade teaching jobs fall from nearly 200 applicants per position in the past to 25 today.

“It (teaching) really is not the respected profession it once was, and I think a lot of people feel that and have decided, ‘You know if we are going to go get a bachelor’s degree it is going to be in an area where perhaps the pay is better,’ or they feel there is more public support,” Severson said.

Severson and DeBerg are hopeful that their new partnership will provide a qualified applicant for the two schools.

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