Md. schools face crisis over special education

Need: A shortage of teachers qualified in the field compounds the problem, especially in Baltimore City.

May 14, 2001|By Mike Bowler and Carl Schoettler | By Mike Bowler and Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Like hospitals that can't find enough doctors, Maryland schools face a crisis in treating children with reading ailments.

A severe shortage of special education teachers - those trained to deal with learning disabilities, most often expressed as reading problems - is shortchanging needy pupils nationally and in Maryland. And that soon will be compounded by a harsh demographic fact: More than half of the state's teachers will be eligible for retirement by 2003.

"It's a terrible time for special education in many parts of the state," says Carol Ann Baglin, assistant state superintendent for special education. "We hardly have a qualified work force to begin with."

This comes as many new teachers - bound for special education and regular elementary school classrooms - are leaving the state's teacher training schools ill-prepared to identify reading problems and address them early enough to help children heading for failure.

The result is an expanding network of frustrated parents and teachers who think the schools could do a better job for the more than one in five children with reading problems.

They point out that such area schools as Jemicy and Odyssey, which specialize in teaching children with dyslexia and other reading disabilities, have known for decades how to teach reading successfully.

Jean Kraynick, one of the frustrated, says she wants to put out a bumper sticker: "My child made the honor roll, but he can't read this bumper sticker."

Kraynick of Westminster has a master's degree in reading and special education, taught special education for 25 years in Carroll County and watched legions of eager new teachers arrive in schools.

"My master's degree in no way prepared me for working with special education kids," she says, "and I'm afraid things haven't improved much."

Adds G. Reid Lyon, who heads reading research at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda: "There's an enormous amount of evidence that teachers aren't trained to teach reading to students who arrive in their classrooms from diverse backgrounds and with a wide range of abilities."

In a 1999 federal survey, only 20 percent of teachers nationally expressed confidence in their abilities to meet the needs of students with reading disabilities. Lyon says it's not an exaggeration to say many such children are "teacher-disabled."

At Coppin State College, a steady source of teachers for Baltimore schools, Lori Harris recalls walking into her own classroom for the first time eight years ago at Cherry Hill Elementary in southern Baltimore. She was just 21, with a degree in education from Loyola College and high hopes.

"I had all these wonderful bright ideas for teaching school," says Harris, now 29 and an assistant professor of education at Coppin. "But it was all based on the idea that I had a class all on grade level - not a class that would be a grade or two, or more, below average."

Not one child in her second-grade class was reading at grade level. "I couldn't do the things I wanted to do, things I really wanted to do," she recalls. "I was pretty disheartened because I had spent most of my summer preparing. ... I assumed they were all going to be on level."

Harris adds a bit plaintively: "I don't know why I thought that."

The disconnect between the need for many more teachers who know how to address reading problems and the training that would-be teachers receive in the state's education schools is particularly acute in Baltimore City and Prince George's County, says state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

But all areas of the state are facing severe shortages of certified special education teachers, and some districts are seeing shortages of reading specialists - experts with master's degrees who act as mentors to the more generally trained elementary school teachers and who tutor the most troubled young readers.

Despite such recently approved state-funded inducements as college scholarships, tax credits and signing bonuses, school districts across Maryland are casting nets as far away as India to find teachers. In particular, "the special education drawer is empty," says Patricia L. Skebeck, Harford County director of elementary education.

Fully a third of Baltimore's 1,289 special education teachers have provisional licenses, which means they have college degrees but not necessarily experience in teaching disabled children to read - and most children in special education have reading difficulty. (Statewide, about one in nine special education teachers are provisionally licensed.)

And increasingly, Maryland school districts are staffing classrooms with substitutes who might have no training in reading education.

"Some of the subs are good, some of them are terrible," says Gayle Amos, head of special education services in the city. "They might have a degree in religion. Some come in, last a few days and then leave. Imagine if you're a child or a parent, and you see four or five teachers in a month or two."

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