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Special-needs teachers in high demand in the Yakima Valley

Teacher Lyndsay Medrano, second from left, helps students during her sixth grade resource class at Artz-Fox Elementary School in Mabton, Wash., Wednesday, April 26, 2017. (Sofia Jaramillo / Yakima Herald-Republic)
Teacher Lyndsay Medrano, second from left, helps students during her sixth grade resource class at Artz-Fox Elementary School in Mabton, Wash., Wednesday, April 26, 2017. (Sofia Jaramillo / Yakima Herald-Republic)

Educators say the Yakima Valley isn’t immune to a growing statewide problem: It’s hard to hire, and even harder to retain, teachers who work with special-needs students.

There are more than 100 special education positions vacant in south Central Washington. Many of the vacancies are for psychologists, para-professionals and speech pathologists. But about a third of the vacancies are for special-needs classroom teachers, which are especially difficult to fill.

Cody Gardiner, the special education director for Sunnyside School District, says it’s easy to understand why filling those teaching positions are difficult.

“I look at it as two jobs,” he said. “The first piece is working with a student base that has a wide array of needs, and the other piece is that you have to do a lot of paperwork … they just get burnt out.”

Aside from normal teaching duties, special education teachers are expected to create detailed individualized education plans – a written education plan designed to meet a child’s learning needs – for as many as 40 students in some schools. Additionally, they need to ensure they comply with numerous school policies and state laws centered for special need students.

“The job of teaching special education has several more layers to it than a general education teacher, and those layers can present challenges,” said Selah School District Superintendent Shane Backlund. “There’s a lot of procedural paperwork, and since most people get into teaching because they have a passion for it, the procedural element can get in the way of that, and over time it can become burdensome to people. The layers of procedural paperwork and laws that must be followed make that position really difficult.”

The shortage, at least in Washington, is a simple case of supply and demand.

In 2015, researchers with the University of Washington, Western Washington University and the American Institutes for Research in Seattle released a report that found the number of teachers trained in special education has remained basically flat over the past 20 years.

Backlund used an example from his district to put that shortage into perspective.

He said only one person has applied for a vacant special-education teacher position that’s been open for about two weeks. In roughly that same time, about 40 people applied for an open fourth-grade teaching position.

“This is a Valley-wide issue,” he said. “We’re not seeing teacher preparation programs putting out a large amount of special education teachers.”

While there’s a limited pool of candidates available to fill vacancies, the report also found that schools around the state have trouble keeping teachers in the classroom: “For most of the past 25 years, (special-education) teachers are more likely to leave the workforce in Washington state than teachers in other areas,” the researchers wrote.

Backlund said roughly one-fourth of the teachers who leave his district each year are special-education teachers.

“And I wouldn’t say that’s uncommon,” he said.

Typically, special education teachers are paid the same as standard teachers. So, to make jobs at their schools more appealing, many local districts offer incentives to prospective special education teachers. In the Sunnyside School District, Gardiner said those teachers receive a $2,500 signing bonus and about seven days a year they can devote to filling out paperwork while a substitute teaches their class. They can also receive up to eight days of pay for work outside of the classroom, depending on their case load. Backlund said his district offers similar incentives to special education teachers.

However, regional school officials say incentive programs only work for school districts with the resources to offer them, making the problem especially difficult for smaller school districts.

“Our smaller districts have a hard time competing with bigger school districts that can provide higher salaries or extra stipends, things that smaller districts don’t have the funding to do,” said Dana Floyd, the director of special services for Educational Service District 105 – an agency that provides a wide range of services for the region’s school districts.

Despite having the resources to offer incentives, Gardiner said the Sunnyside School District has begun to focus on turning standard teachers into special-education teachers. If a teacher wants to earn their special education certification, Gardiner said the district will pay for up to $5,000 for the cost of doing so.

“If we can’t find them, we have to grow our own,” he said.


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