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SALT LAKE CITY — A teacher leading a self-contained special education classroom in a Canyons School District elementary school has no teaching degree, no special education license and little teaching experience, students' relatives told the State School Board this past week.
The teacher, who has a bachelor's degree and was hired under the state's Alternative Routes to Licensure teacher preparation track, has taught physical education but has no specialized training teaching children with disabilities, according to a mother whose son is in the class.
The state's Alternative Routes to Licensure track is a teacher preparation program that allows participants to teach in an accredited Utah school on a temporary license for up to three years while they fulfill licensure requirements.
Sarah Maulden's son, who has neurodevelopmental disabilities, was placed in the self-contained classroom with other students who require special education services on the advice of educators at the school, she said.
"It's a self-contained class of special ed students, all with IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) all with complex backgrounds, complex needs," said Maulden, who is a physician who specializes in neurology.
"That really made a huge difference for him. Then this year, starting in the fall, we found things weren’t going as well" after a different teacher had been assigned to the class, she said.
"His teacher has never taught school before. This teacher has never taught special ed, has never taught reading, has never taught math. (She) has taught PE, has never had a license. She’s in the Alternative Routes to Licensure program and she’s faced every day with a classroom of 12 kids with behavior issues and academic issues. I know she’s being supported the best she can. Nothing against anyone personally, but I feel the hiring practice really needs to be examined," she said.
Cliff Eccles, whose granddaughter attends the same school, said he has contacted the Canyons School District with similar concerns but said, "We are not being heard."
"The education she is receiving right now is deplorable. There is not a qualified teacher in special ed," Eccles said. "I feel very strongly that you should look into these situations and help correct it."
Emilie Wheeler, public information officer for the Utah State Board of Education, said several board members have advised Maulden of her options.
"Additionally, our special education staff has communicated with the Canyons School District special education staff about the concerns," Wheeler said.
Hiring decisions are the sole purview of school districts and charter schools, she said.
Canyons School District spokeswoman Kirsten Stewart said the district is likewise aware of the parents' concerns and is "actively working to address them."
Stewart said federal privacy laws bar her from disclosing specifics of the patrons' concerns, but the school district provides many supports to enhance its special education programs.
"This year, to support our contained special education, or Academic Behavior Supports classrooms, we’ve worked to shrink class sizes and hire extra staff, including paraeducators and social workers. We’ve also offered additional special education training and paid stipends to those teachers who enroll," Stewart said.
She said Canyons School District strives to hire the best candidate for each job opening. "Sometimes the best candidate is licensed, and sometimes the best candidate comes through the state’s ARL and APT (Academic Pathways to Teaching) programs," she said.
A review of authorizations approved by the State School Board in November suggests there are dozens of educators in special education classrooms in Utah public schools who are working toward licensure, are still in college or completing postgraduate coursework leading to endorsements and licensure. Others need to take the state PRAXIS test to obtain their teaching licenses or transfer their credentials to Utah from other states.
Many of the requests from school districts and charter schools include this justification: "Statewide shortage of special education teachers, especially those possessing experience teaching children with autism."
"She’s in the Alternative Routes to Licensure program and she’s faced every day with a classroom of 12 kids with behavior issues and academic issues. I know she’s being supported the best she can. Nothing against anyone personally, but I feel the hiring practice really needs to be examined."
The shortage means school districts and charter schools are relying on alternative authorizations to meet workforce needs.
For example, applicants for the Alternative Routes to Licensure track who meet the requirements in statute and rule can receive temporary authorization to teach from the State School Board, Wheeler said.
"The board is constantly looking at improving the educator licensing process and has been working on completely restructuring the system for over a year," Wheeler said.
The Utah Legislature's Education Interim Committee has opened a bill file that would change the state statute and allow the school board to modify the process.
The State School Board has begun rewriting rules on educator licensing, "and it’s likely that special education will be addressed," she said.
The Utah Legislature created Alternative Routes to Licensure process through the passage of state statutes more than a decade ago.
There are 556 Alternative Routes to Licensure teachers in Utah public schools, just under 2 percent of all classroom teachers, Wheeler said. Some 500 others teachers are authorized to teach in Utah public schools under three other programs, one of which allows school district-level or charter school-level licensure.
The State School Board board is keenly aware of and concerned about the ongoing teacher shortage, "particularly in difficult-to-fill positions that include special education," she said.
The State School Board wants to give schools flexibility in attracting teachers "but maintain a system that is fair to educators regardless of the entry pathway and fair to students by putting competent teachers in classrooms," Wheeler said.
Sara Jones, government relations director of the Utah Education Association, urged the State School Board "to continue to look at long-term solutions to the teacher shortage and effective preparation and training. This is a critical issue in our state."
Maulden said the teacher assigned to the Canyons classroom has some teaching experience, but highly specific training is needed to meet students' individual academic and behavioral needs, particularly in a self-contained classroom.
"So for them to have a teacher who has no training in their disabilities is somewhat akin to the hospital world, where I work, to putting the sickest, most vulnerable patients in the hospital under the care of the interns and saying, ‘Good luck. We’ll support you.’ I don’t think that’s the right thing to do and I know we can do better," she said.
Utah's shortage of special educators is so acute that lawmakers are considering offering them a starting stipend of $4,000 annually, similar to incentives paid to teachers of mathematics, some science disciplines and computer science.
Maulden said more needs to be done because her concerns transcend this school year. Next year, her son will transition to middle school.
"The middle schools in our district that have these self-contained classrooms, there’s only two, and one of them has had a new teacher for the past five years in a row. Every year the teacher leaves, a new teacher is hired. Something is not allowing those teachers to want to stay so I think there is something we need to address," she said.