WANTED: High school teachers qualified to work with learning disabled, mentally retarded, hearing and visually impaired, emotionally disturbed, and other special needs students.

START DATE: Yesterday.

Special education teachers constitute the single biggest shortage in Chicago’s public schools, and high schools are suffering the most.

Overall, high schools have about one unfilled position per school while elementary schools have one unfilled position for every two schools. Specifically, the district’s 93 high schools have 110 vacancies; its 504 elementary schools have 264.

The shortage is especially acute for 11 high schools in the poorest communities, where as many as 30 percent of students qualify for special education services, according to a study that analyzed 1999-2000 enrollment. At Austin High—where 40 percent of freshmen enrolled this fall have learning or other disabilities—five of 21 positions are currently filled by substitutes.

“It’s a genuine crisis,” says Chicago Teachers Union President Deborah Lynch, herself a former special education teacher. “Special ed is the subject with the highest rate of under-prepared teachers,” she contends.

Among the district’s 3,930 special education teachers, 40 percent lacked full certification to work with disabled students, according to a Chicago Tribune analysis of data collected by the state. Learning-disabled students comprise the largest group in special education, with nearly 65 percent of this year’s 17,190 special education students.

High schools with shortages have some options for filling the gap. Principals can fill these slots with general education teachers who are taking classes required for special education certification. They can also pay qualified special education teachers to work extra periods. “It depends on what the staff is willing to do,” says Yvonne Williams of the CPS Office of Specialized Services.

Nationally, demand for special education teachers has been on the rise for a decade. The number of students classified as learning-disabled is up more than 10 percent, partly due to more aggressive testing and identification. Over the past 25 years, the number of special education students has grown steadily and now accounts for 12 percent of the national school population, up from 8 percent in 1976.

Chicago isn’t the only place where supply has not kept up with demand. The American Federation of Teachers estimates that last year up to 60,000 special ed positions nationwide were filled by uncertified teachers. By 2010, jobs for special education teachers are expected to grow as much as 35 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Chicago is no different than anywhere else,” insists Sue Gamm, who oversees CPS Specialized Services. In fact, special education jobs accounted for 43 percent of all unfilled teacher positions statewide at the beginning of the school year.

Recent growth in the city’s special education student population may have been spurred by the CPS mandate against social promotions. A study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that “higher percentages of elementary school students were identified as eligible for special education services after they failed to pass the system’s promotion gates in the third, sixth, and eighth grades.”

That may account for some of the rise in freshmen special education populations at the high school level—16.4 percent in the 1999-2000 school year, up from 11.5 percent in 1993-94. The finding worries Robert Gladden, one of the report’s authors. “A key question is ‘Why are so many kids being classified, and is it doing them any good?'” he says.

While it searches for an answer to that question, CPS has to do what it can to fill special education vacancies. To widen the applicant pool beyond city limits, CPS suspended the residency requirement for one year and five teachers were hired as a result. Another 28 have applied this year, and will be hired if the board suspends residency another year.

CPS also has offered free training to general education teachers who are willing work to in special education positions as substitutes. In September, a judge ruled that all regular education teachers must do 20 percent of their recertification work in special education; special education teachers must take 50 percent.

Such stopgap measures don’t begin to address issues that are discouraging new or seasoned teachers from entering the field, and are even driving away those who are already there. Lynch hears a litany of complaints. “Mounting paperwork, lack of support, packed schedules, and high concentration of special needs kids in neighborhood schools” are but a few, she says.

Individual Education Plans (IEPs), a detailed outline of goals and services tailored to fit a child’s needs, are a major source of contention. Teachers must write one for each special education student, but recent revisions that include local, state, and federal requirements have added dozens of entries to the already lengthy document. The paperwork—which special education teachers contend is more time-consuming to fill out than ever—has become so troublesome that the Illinois Council for Exceptional Children, a leading advocacy group for special education students, plans to launch a study.

“Veteran teachers are feeling they just can’t do everything,” says council President Bev Johns, who is particularly worried about the tide of special education teachers who are leaving the field in favor of regular classes. With the overall teacher shortage in the city’s public schools, it’s easy for special education teachers to switch back into general education, say locals in the field.

Tough work

Meanwhile, special education teachers say their jobs are tough. They are tapped to provide instruction in self-contained classrooms (all special ed students) and to support special education students who have been mainstreamed into “regular” classes. At the high school level, wearing those two hats can be a mental challenge as teachers work with students tackling subjects that range from auto mechanics to advanced algebra.

Recently, some high schools are divvying up subjects among special education teachers, giving them the luxury of specializing. Last year, Ana Maria Luhan, a special education teacher at Bogan High, taught classes in Spanish, her area of expertise, and worked as a resource teacher for special education students taking chemistry. Luhan says her knowledge of science improved markedly, but she is far happier this year teaching only Spanish.

Another huge task is meeting the needs of students who differ markedly in abilities and needs. In teaching vocabulary and verb conjugation, for instance, Luhan finds that songs help the musically-inclined students, while visually-oriented learners may pick up more from graphic organizers. “You are constantly trying to come up with different strategies to get the same material across,” she explains.

Bonnie Ulich, a specialist for the deaf and hard-of-hearing at Prosser Career Academy, works with Colombian immigrants who do not understand English or sign language. In addition, she works with special needs children who are also dialysis patients, and others who have multiple, severe handicaps. “They’re complicated kids,” Ulich says.

High school special education teachers have the added responsibility of preparing their students for life after graduation. Providing career guidance and emotional support can be critical for their students’ future success, they say.

Ulich says many special education students come from families who are poorly informed or unrealistic about their children’s job prospects. She tries to prepare them for the working world by teaching students how to take public transportation, pushing them to get eye exams and encouraging them to sign up for job-training programs. “You have to do it,” she says. “If you don’t, no one else will.”

Contract talks

Not surprisingly, paying teachers for the time they spend filling out paperwork is among the recommendations that the teachers union is bringing to the table at the upcoming contract talks. Union reps also will raise the issue of adjusting class size in general classes where special education students are included by a number that takes into account the severity of the disability. (One severely retarded student, for instance, may count for two general education students.)

Among newly minted teachers, interest in special education has fallen off significantly. Between 1975 and 2000, the number of teachers in Illinois who graduated with a bachelor’s in special education dropped by nearly 60 percent. At the same time, special education master’s degrees were down close to 50 percent.

While the department of special education at Northeastern University has more applicants than slots, the school cannot expand its pipeline, says David Yasutaki, department chair. “Our resources are limited.” This year, 40 undergrads are enrolled in the program.

The department just finished revamping its curriculum to meet new standards for certification that allow graduates to work with a wider range of disabilities. The change, made in accordance with the Corey H. settlement, will make graduates more marketable, but also “makes the program more difficult because there is more material to cover,” he says.

Because the shortage in special education teachers has spread to the suburbs, Yasutaki adds, more of his graduates are choosing to work in schools outside of Chicago.

Leslie Whitaker is a freelance writer.

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