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Special education teachers spread thin in the St. Louis region

Special education teacher Tiffany Andrews teaches a fourth grader about possessive nouns on Oct. 17, 2017.
Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Special education teacher Tiffany Andrews teaches a fourth grader about possessive nouns.

There’s a limited pool of people certified to teach special education in the St. Louis metro area, putting districts from St. Charles County to the Metro East in intense competition for qualified candidates.

Even more well-off schools feel the impact of the shortage, but schools with higher needs and less money often have the most trouble filling positions.

At the Cahokia school district in St. Clair County, high turnover leaves Superintendent Art Ryan regularly posting job openings for special education teachers.

“Just since our school year started, we’ve had four that have left already that we’re in the process of trying to replace, that have either found other work someplace else, decided education wasn’t for them, whatever the case may be,” Ryan said.

A common shortage

Illinois, St. Charles County, St. Louis County, St. Louis and Jefferson County all have a special education teacher shortage,according to the U.S. Department of Education.

But it’s especially a problem in districts like Cahokia, where three out of four children come from low-income families and one in four qualify for special education services. The national average is 13 percent.

Cahokia’s Special Education Services Director, Victoria Breckel, said low property values mean higher caseloads for teachers. And that makes those teachers more likely to leave.

“Everyone likes to feel effective in their job, so if you can go somewhere and have a class of 22 instead of 30 and feel more effective when you get burnt out, it takes a lot to stay in a high needs community and feel like you’re spinning your wheels,” Breckel said.

St. Louis Public Schools, for instance, had 14 unfilled special education positions at the beginning of this school year.

Confluence Charter Schools had two. CEO Candice Carter-Oliver said that means busier schedules and higher caseloads for their teachers.

“You’d like to have a bit extra, and we’re not in a position right now to have that extra that we’d like,” Carter-Oliver said. “We can meet children’s needs, but what we’d like to do is exceed needs.”

When there are fewer special education teachers at a school, they aren’t able to spend as much time with children.

Sometimes they essentially become consultants to classroom teachers, said Stacie Kirk, an associate professor of special education at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.

“They’re helping create the objectives for the student to work on, based their needs and the assessment data, but they may not have the same personal contact with those students that we would want to have,” Kirk said.

Kirk said it’s especially concerning when a district doesn’t have access to a specialist, such as a speech pathologist. Those types of shortages are commonwithin an hour’s drive of St. Louis.

“They’re essentially starting at a larger deficit when somebody else does come back in and provide those services if they’ve gone without them for a while,” Kirk said.

"They treated me like a baby"

Rachel Morgan supports her son Adam's hand as he answers a question using an iPad communication app on Oct. 17, 2017.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Rachel Morgan supports her son Adam's hand as he answers a question using an iPad communication app.

Even districts in more well-off parts of the region are sometimes unable to meet parents’ expectations.

Rachel Morgan’s son Adam is a sophomore at Fort Zumwalt East High School in St. Charles County. He’s autistic and uses an iPad to communicate.

At their home after school, Morgan asked her son if he thinks his teachers are highly qualified.

Using an annotation app, he typed, “High school, yes. Middle school, no. They treated me like a baby.” The tablet then read his statement aloud.

Morgan said her son had a bad experience in middle school, with teachers that didn’t believe he was capable of more advanced school work. She wants Adam’s teachers to be certified in both special education and the subjects they teach.

“Having that balance of understanding a child who learns differently and communicates differently but also having that content, that expert in the content area,” Morgan said. “Kind of feels like you have to pick one or the other.”

In high school, Adam is in a general classroom setting. He has a speech pathologist helping his teachers learn how to adapt their lessons to his way of communicating and learning.

Fort Zumwalt Superintendent Bernard DuBray said he tries to hire dually-certified teachers, but sometimes they’re hard to find.

“It used to be that all your certification was going to be special education and you didn’t necessarily — you weren’t qualified in math, for example,” DuBray said. “You just had a special education certification.”

Despite some efforts to turn the tide, it could soon be more difficult for DuBray and other area superintendents to fill all of their special education vacancies.

That’s because colleges like SIUE have seen a drop in the number of students enrolling in their special education programs.

Kirk said SIUE used to have 60 students enroll each year; now the program only has about 25.

Follow Camille on Twitter:@cmpcamille