Special ed teachers are hard to find

Schools officials offer bonuses, other incentives to attract highly valued candidates to Harford County


In the annual effort to fill vacant teaching positions before the start of the school year, county administrators had whittled the list of projected vacancies from 280 to six by last week.

And increasingly, openings for special education teachers are becoming harder to fill, as a growing number of children are in need of such services and the demand for qualified teaching candidates is outpacing the supply, county school administrators say.

"All the counties in the state are looking for good special education teachers," said Margaret Goodson, who has worked as the supervisor of staffing for the county school system for the past seven years. "So the market is very competitive."

According to an annual statewide teacher staffing report, there is a pool of 792 candidates ready to take special education positions, while the projected number of openings in Maryland is 1,055 for the coming school year.

"Districts all over the state are in the same boat," Goodson said. "And we all hire from the same pools of people."

Harford employs about 415 special education teachers, who serve about 6,000 students. Administrators originally had about 50 such teaching positions to fill for the coming academic year, and had hired all but three as of last week.

To snag some of the top candidates, county school officials are using strategies that include bonuses, hiring teachers on a conditional certification basis, establishing a mentoring program, and implementing a computer program that streamlines paperwork.

But even with these incentives, logistics can be a deal-breaker.

"Not everyone we want to hire accepts a position," Goodson said. "They might want to work in a school in the southern part of the county and we offer them a position in the north. Or they want to work in a middle school and we offer them a job in the high school."

If all open positions haven't been filled by May of the previous school year, Goodson hires candidates with conditional certificates, which means they have two years to complete certification.

"We try to get the highly qualified and fully certified candidates, but sometimes it's just one course or test completion standing in the way of certification," Goodson said. "So we hire them with the understanding that they will become fully certified."

In an effort to lure people to the district, the county has several initiatives, including a bonus program sponsored by County Executive David R. Craig that awards new teachers $1,000 when they sign a contract with the district. This year 90 teachers received the bonus.

But sometimes even extra money isn't enough to entice teachers, so school officials are attempting to make the jobs more appealing to newcomers.

For starters, the school system has implemented a Web-based computer program that makes it much easier and more efficient for teachers to manage the written education plans they prepare for each student.

The program is expected to make paperwork less cumbersome and decrease teacher caseloads, said Gerald Horn, the assistant principal at John Archer School, which serves 160 pupils ages 3 to 21 who have profound or severe disabilities.

Although the school doesn't have high teacher attrition rates, the paperwork has scared off a few, Horn said.

"One year a teacher stayed one day and got overwhelmed and left," Horn said. "Accountability paperwork is tough."

Also, the district has implemented a mentoring program for new teachers, said Mary Lentowski, assistant supervisor of special education for elementary programs for county schools. Through the program, new teachers are provided with support and evening seminars, which include planning tips and instruction on preparing paperwork.

And the mentoring program can mean the difference between retaining and losing a teacher, said Lentowski, who taught special education for 17 years.

"I think the challenge of having to know general education curriculum as well as developing and implementing IEPs [individualized education plans] can be overwhelming for some new teachers," she said. "The mentoring program helps the teachers get past this and see that special education is a rewarding field. It provides a teacher with opportunities to make a difference in the life of a child with learning challenges."

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