Aspen faces special ed crunch |

Aspen faces special ed crunch

Katie Redding
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

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.

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.

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