Aspen faces special ed crunch
September 1, 2008
ASPEN ” With the second week of school set to begin, the Aspen School District remains short two teachers and three teacher aides ” mostly in the special education area.
The district still does not have an early childhood special education teacher at The Cottage (the Aspen Elementary School’s pre- kindergarten component) or a teacher specializing in reading at the Aspen Middle School. It also is in need of three aides, also known as para-professionals, to help children with special physical or educational needs work through their own individualized educational programs.
Substitutes, rotating professional staff and administrators helped cover the gap during the first week, said Assistant Superintendent John Maloy. But it’s critical for children with special needs to connect with the same teachers and aides every day, he explained.
“Having a consistent aide every day really makes a difference for their emotional, psychological and intellectual growth,” he said.
Maloy said the staff shortage stems partly from an increase in the district’s population of special education students. And he noted that the recent addition of pre-kindergarten classes at The Cottage has also added more students to the district, and thus more students with special needs. More students in Aspen, and across the nation, are being diagnosed with special needs.
“The special education population across the country has grown exponentially,” Maloy said, adding that the field continues to be the most challenging for many districts.
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But for at least the past decade, it’s been a challenge to find teachers who are both qualified and interested in moving into special education, he said.
And this year, a combination of attrition and retirement left the district with more positions than it could fill. Maloy also noted that Aspen’s high cost of living always makes it a challenge to attract teaching staff.
“I think the other difficulty in this valley is that a certain income is necessary, especially if you’re an individual,” he said.
But he argued that the lower-paid paraprofessional positions, with starting salaries between about $23,000 and $29,000 a year, are excellent positions for parents with children in the school district, since their vacations and hours would exactly coincide with their children’s schedules.
The district has been advertising on the Internet, especially on special education websites. Staff also have been calling recently retired teachers, asking if they would be willing to return, Maloy said. The district does not appear to be advertising in local newspapers.
The district hopes that there may still be valley residents who simply aren’t aware of the opportunities, Maloy said.
Heather Abraham, the district’s director of special education, noted that while special education positions are certainly challenging, the rewards are immeasurable.
Just the other day, she said, she was on the phone with a teacher who had been trying to teach a non-verbal student to use picture cards to communicate her wants and needs.
While the teacher was on the phone, the student for the first time came all the way across the room to give the teacher a card indicating she wanted a snack, Abraham said. She and the teacher had a short cheering session.
“With these students, every little piece of progress they make is a huge accomplishment,” Abraham said. “Often, you get to see them do things” that many people thought they couldn’t do.
Both Maloy and Abraham noted that those hired will be provided an extensive initial orientation and continuing professional training.