Teacher shortage shortchanges disabled students

As Minnesota scrambles to educate more high-needs students, teachers say the job is increasingly dangerous.

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Deb Moorse, a speech and language pathologist, worked with a 14-year-old student via Skype from an office in Benson, Minn.

Photo: ELIZABETH FLORES • eflores@startribune.com,

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Schools across Minnesota with soaring numbers of students who have serious behavioral or emotional problems are facing a growing predicament: They cannot find or keep enough teachers qualified and willing to educate them.

The number of special education students in the state has increased by 10 percent in the last five years, and many of them have acute conditions that were once addressed outside of classroom settings. But as schools scramble to meet their needs, the number of licensed special education teachers in Minnesota is in sharp decline, dropping by almost 10 percent over the same time frame.

Teachers say working with special education students is becoming more difficult and dangerous. Many of those students are bringing more severe problems to already crowded classrooms that lack support staff. Others are prone to violent outbursts that are injuring or frightening teachers.

“Some of our teachers are leaving after a couple of months,” said Mary Roffers, who teaches disabled children at Hiawatha Elementary School in Minneapolis and has been bitten, punched and pushed by students. “They just can’t do it.”

More than 800 of the state’s 8,900 licensed special education teachers quit during the most recent school year the state tracked. Meanwhile, it granted just 417 new licenses for special ed teachers, the fewest in at least five years.

The shortage is a national problem, but it is an especially urgent issue in Minnesota, which has one of the fastest-growing special education populations in the country.

That’s creating a quandary for schools around the state, which are required by law to educate students no matter what their special needs are.

Some schools are relying more on teachers who are not properly trained to work with such students. Others are taking extraordinary steps to connect special ed students with teachers who are specialists.

In some parts of Minnesota, special education teachers are driving hundreds of miles a week to serve students at schools with no one on staff who can help them. One psychologist logged 22,000 miles between schools this academic year. Other schools have no better option than to have specialists work with students over the Internet, rarely meeting them in person.

New state requirements for teachers who work with students who have autism, a population that has jumped fivefold in Minnesota over the last decade, are expected to make the shortage even worse.

“These are some of the hardest jobs in teaching, ” said St. Paul attorney Amy Goetz, who has built a law practice fighting on behalf of special ed students. “They should be some of the most well-supported people, but they’re not. … Instead, we starve them of resources and they burn out.”

A tipping point

On a recent Friday evening, about 50 special education workers in Minneapolis gathered for a session titled “What’s Working and What’s Not” in special education.

As they crowded a conference room holding paper plates of pizza, union leader Lynn Nordgren pleaded for civility. “We are not here to disparage special education,” she said, as some laughed at the suggestion. “We have to make this a profession you love again.”

Nordgren quickly got to the heart of their concerns. “How many of you have a low caseload?” she asked.

No one raised a hand. One teacher said she has 27 kids in her classroom, when “we are supposed to have 18 to 23.” Another complained of spending 40 hours a week on paperwork.

“I only teach four hours a day,” said a special education teacher from Southwest High School. “I spend more time on a student’s paperwork than I ever do sitting down and helping them with their math.”

State and federal law requires teams of teachers to evaluate special ed students, develop a plan to educate them, then fill out progress, incident and compliance reports.

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