When Saadia Brooks walked into a summer seminar for Chicago Public School “paraeducators,” or teaching assistants, she was hoping to learn about new and improved ways to help her special education students. She walked out of the seminar with an even better deal— an opportunity to complete a tuition-free college education and become a Chicago public school special education teacher through a new CPS program called Project CAST, for Creating A Special Teacher. Developed by the Office of Specialized Services through a federal grant, the program is aimed at easing CPS’s longstanding shortage of special education teachers. Currently, there are 294 vacancies being filled by substitute teachers or general education teachers without the correct certification.

“I picked up an application, and now I’m in the program at Chicago State, ” says Brooks, a teacher assistant at White Elementary School in West Pullman. She is one of 97 students currently enrolled in Project CAST.

The program works in two stages. Stage one, which began last January, is an associate degree program within the City Colleges of Chicago. Stage two, which just started this fall, is a bachelor degree program that can be completed at either Chicago State or Northeastern Illinois university.

Says Lillian Gonzalez, director of Specialized Service’s resource network, “Not only will this program enable us to provide better services to special education students, it will allow participants the opportunity to be promoted.”

Most CAST participants are teacher assistants, instructional assistants or child welfare attendants working in a special education setting.

“Students with higher grades, recommendations from principals and more experience working in special education are usually chosen,” says Gonzalez. They also must meet standard admission criteria of City Colleges and both universities.

Participants must maintain a grade-point average of at least 2.75 and sign a contract agreeing to teach special education in CPS for five years upon completion of stage two. In return, CPS pays course tuition and reimburses participants for book costs.

CAST has a natural advantage, too: While taking courses, participants receive hands-on training in the classroom under the supervision of an experienced special education teacher. While their jobs do not fulfill the student teaching requirement, participants may use them to complete their required special projects.

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