Specialized burnout: Sacramento schools importing Filipino teachers to plug special education shortage

Kids, parents suffer as districts scramble to address high turnover

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the December 8, 2016, issue.

As Sacramento-area schools reel from a nationwide shortage of special education teachers, one local school district is hoping to address the issue by taking its search global.

There are 30,232 special education students enrolled in Sacramento County school districts, according to the California Department of Education. The dearth of instructors to teach them is part of a national trend blamed on high burnout and fewer credentialed professionals in the hiring pool. And parents say it’s the students who rely on consistent classroom attention who stand to lose.

One class at Folsom High School was without a full-time special education teacher two months into the new school year. The array of substitutes brought in to fill the gap until a permanent replacement was hired left Kelly Supple’s son anxious. The 14-year-old has moderate autism and is nonverbal.

Supple, a credentialed special education teacher herself, said that when her son becomes nervous, he acts out by unraveling the threads of his knee socks. Sometimes, she said, he would arrive home from school with his picked-at socks unwound down to his ankles.

Supple said the Folsom-Cordova Unified School District eventually lured a special education teacher with three years of experience to her son’s school by offering a $10,000 signing bonus.

But a nationwide staffing shortage persists. Fifty-one percent of all school districts and 90 percent of high-poverty school districts struggle to attract qualified and credentialed special education teachers to fill these slots, according to the National Coalition on Personnel Shortages in Special Education and Related Services.

At Birch Lane Elementary School, part of the Davis Joint Unified School District, a special education teacher resigned just before the start of the school year. The job is now held by a former substitute teacher after the district failed to find a certified professional to teach moderately to severely disabled students in classroom.

DJUSD is coming up short even though administrators frequent recruitment fairs and nurture relationships with universities that turn out special education teachers. As a result, the district is planning to develop a student-teacher intern program to ease this crunch, according to DJUSD spokeswoman Maria Clayton.

Classroom consolidation is another tactic. DJUSD recently combined Birch Lane’s kindergarten-through-second-grade special education class with Pioneer Elementary’s third-through sixth-grade special education class.

“I think two classes of four kids that were more grade-level appropriate would have made more sense, but with a shortage of teachers it may have been hard to pull off,” said parent Kalista Hickman, whose daughter is a special-ed student at Birch Lane.

One other district, meanwhile, has expanded the search beyond these shores.

Sacramento City Unified School District has recruited 13 special education teachers from the Philippines with the help of Avenida International Consultants Inc., a teacher recruitment agency that also secured an apartment complex for all of the teachers to live in. The Filipino teachers are on contract to work for one year.

“Our human resources department is knocking itself out to make sure that those positions are filled,” noted Janet Weeks, communications manager for SCUSD.

The district is also actively urging its schools’ para-educators, or classroom aides, to become certified as special education teachers.

Supple teaches students with moderate disabilities at Sutter Middle School. When she applied for the position 15 years ago, she had five other offers. Today, she can’t wait to leave. “I dream almost every day of getting out,” said Supple, who plans to teach five more years, until her own children are out of school.

According to the special education personnel coalition, nearly 12.3 percent of special education teachers leave the profession within five years. Supple has lasted longer than most, but the mentally taxing profession has exacted a toll.

“I think I do a good job, but, there is an extent to what I can do,” she told SN&R. “I do take anti-anxiety pills daily. I’ve been on pills for depression. I’ve had to go through many things to manage the stress related to my work.”

Though her students are the heart of her work, they are also the least of her worries.

Supple, who once dreamed of a career spent crafting creative lesson plans, said her time is dominated by required paperwork. She is responsible for assessing, drafting and coordinating individualized education plans, or IEPs, for 25 to 30 students. The IEPs outline education goals and require the coordination of parents, speech therapists, occupational therapists, school psychologists and administrators. Supple also trains and manages classroom assistants, collaborates with general education teachers for students who are mainstreamed and must coordinate with specialists so that her students fulfill the goals of their IEPs.

Many special education teachers bring this work home—a task that can take hours. Supple squeezes in the obligation over lunch and, from time to time, while her students are assigned an independent classroom activity.

And there are the occasional student altercations that need to be investigated, reported and sorted out. These tasks are balanced—or not—while teaching students lesson plans tailored to their specific needs.

Supple said that she is dismayed by the lack of support for her plight at the district level—and her dissatisfaction aligns with national statistics showing that special education teachers often lack professional support and work in isolation.

“I basically feel like I am teaching the same thing every year because I have no time to put into a lesson plan,” she said.