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Continued: Teacher shortage shortchanges disabled students

Kim Hymes, a director at the Council for Exceptional Children, which is based in Washington, D.C., and advocates for kids with special needs, said many states are responding to shortages by allowing teachers to work with students they are not trained to instruct. “It’s a huge concern for us,’’ she said.

Goetz, the attorney who has represented hundreds of families with disabled children, said schools should not allow teachers to work in special ed without proper training. “It is a substandard practice.”

Parents often don’t know if their child’s teacher has the proper license for their disability. They wind up filing complaints with the state when they can’t get services they need.

Some of the investigations into incidents of untrained teachers working with disabled students found:

• In 2010, state regulators cited St. Paul Public Schools for failing to provide proper instruction to an 11-year-old boy with an emotional behavior disorder (EBD) that left him extremely anxious. His school had no teachers licensed to work with EBD students.

• An 18-year-old disabled boy was injured in 2012 when he was left alone in a lab with four other disabled students and a teacher’s assistant at his Spring Lake Park school.

• In Prior Lake, state regulators faulted district officials for removing a 12-year-old boy with autism from his school and putting him in a program with no other students and no licensed teachers. He was taught by a social worker.

Problem to get worse

Charlene Briner, the education department’s chief of staff, said most of the department’s initiatives to reduce paperwork have eased administrative burdens but haven’t helped classroom teachers.

“That’s the big kahuna,” Briner said of reducing teacher caseloads. “When teachers are able to spend more time with their students, that’s when we’ll see substantial improvement.”

She and department officials are hopeful that legislation calling for a statewide task force to examine limits on paperwork and workloads could offer relief.

Meanwhile new state licensing requirements for teachers who work with autistic students are fueling more staffing concerns.

The requirements — up to 34 college credits for new teachers — are a much-needed recognition that students with autism have unique learning needs, advocates say. “For parents, there’s this constant pressure to find teachers who understand autism,” said Nora Slawik, director of education for the Autism Society of Minnesota. It is “a very good step in educating kids with autism.”

Under the new rules, set to go in effect in 2015, all students with autism — 15,378 last year — will need at least one autism teacher to help craft their individual learning plan.

Many schools aren’t sure how they’re going to meet the requirements. Mary Clarkson, special education director for Anoka-Hennepin, the state’s largest school district, said she expects some schools may seek waivers because of how difficult it will be to find teachers with the new licenses, given the current shortage.

“It’s going to pose some significant challenges for us.”

kim.mcguire@startribune.com • 612-673-4469 jeff.meitrodt@startribune.com • 612-673-4132

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