‘Nearing a collapse,’ Indiana needs more special educators

A special educator works with one of her students, wearing a face shield and protective mask.
To help fill vacancies in special education, Indiana and school districts have earmarked millions in federal dollars to train more teachers. (Ben Hasty / MediaNews Group / Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

When her colleague resigned unexpectedly over Christmas break, special education teacher Lisa Whitlow-Hill took 20 more students under her wing. 

In addition to coordinating a college and career program for young adults with disabilities, Whitlow-Hill now had to identify goals and create service plans for preschoolers to eighth graders, too.  

As schools throughout the state struggle to fill special education jobs, their task will likely grow ahead of a July expiration date for about 1,200 emergency teaching permits.

“Education is so important, but we’re struggling,” Whitlow-Hill said. “We’ve lost so many people.”

Indiana doesn’t keep track of how many special education teachers its schools lack or will need. But many districts face vacancies, which squeeze their budgets and leave them vulnerable to lawsuits for failing to provide services guaranteed by federal law. 

To help fill the gap, the state and school districts have earmarked millions in federal dollars to train more special education teachers. One pathway will offer a bridge for teachers whose emergency permits are expiring, while another focuses on working paraprofessionals. 

But the programs will take one to four years to yield classroom-ready teachers, leaving concerns that at the moment, schools simply can’t find enough people to hire.

What’s driving special education shortages

The number of working special education teachers in Indiana declined around 4% from 2014 to 2021, while the number of students in special education grew 12%, according to the Indiana Department of Education. 

A state job bank lists over 150 open special education teaching positions, but more openings likely exist. Not all schools list vacancies in the bank, department spokesperson Holly Lawson said. 

At the same time, fewer students enter and stay in traditional teaching programs, while the educator workforce is aging, said Carey Dahncke, who leads a University of Indianapolis education center. Only about 16% of undergraduate education majors go on to earn their teaching licenses, according to one study. And candidates who want to teach special education must also obtain an addition to their teaching license. 

Previously, schools could fill vacancies with substitutes, said Angie Balsley, president of the Indiana Council of Administrators of Special Education.

But finding substitutes has been more challenging during the pandemic, as schools need to fill in for educators out because of COVID, Balsley said. She said the general demand for workers, low wages, and a negative public perception of teaching also discourage people from pursuing a career in education.

“We’re nearing a collapse on the current trajectory because of personnel shortages,” Balsley said. 

What the shortage means

Balsley, who also serves as executive director of Earlywood, a special education services co-op in Franklin, said four of its 85 certified staff members resigned in December alone, placing a heavy burden on those who remain.

For students who qualify for special education, services are a right, she said. 

“In a classroom, unlike a fast food chain, we don’t get to just close for the day,” Balsley said.

That’s what left teacher Whitlow-Hill to take over the documentation duties for special education at a small private school, while a paraprofessional leads the classroom under Whitlow-Hill’s direction. 

COVID considerations like exposures, masking rules, and contact tracing weigh heavily on educators’ minds, Whitlow-Hill said. But those worries may be even more acute for special education aides who risk exposure to COVID in the classroom and may not receive a paycheck if they have to quarantine, she added. 

This in turn makes it harder to hire aides. 

“You’re kind of taking on hazardous circumstances,” she said. “It’s a different level of stress.”

Pandemic restrictions and risks also have eaten into the ranks of the cadre of specialists — speech and occupational therapists, as well as psychologists — vital to special education. They face heightened risks traveling from school to school and being in close contact with multiple students.

After Earlywood lost one of its school psychologists in a tragic accident, Ashley Landrum stepped in to cover two districts with the help of an intern, which leaves her responsible for dozens of special education evaluations and a growing number of behavior assessments of children struggling with the stresses of the pandemic. 

Because federal rules set a strict timetable for evaluations, Landrum said she’s working longer days to get them done. She said schools struggle to hire contractors to do that work, because they’re in short supply, too. 

“Timelines haven’t changed. Deadlines haven’t changed,” she said. “Two years into the pandemic, none of our expectations have changed.”

State tries to fill gaps

With about 1,200 educators set to lose emergency permits after this school year, the state will grant provisional teacher status to those who are seeking full licensure. 

Those permits will allow them to remain in the classroom for three years while working toward their license, said Lawson of the state Department of Education. The state is underwriting the tuition and fees for their studies by tapping about $4 million in federal relief funds through 2024.

“We’re seeing strong engagement so far,” Lawson said. “This is a really great program that covers costs and streamlines the process.” 

About 170 teacher candidates have enrolled in the state’s alternative permit program, known by its acronym I-SEAL. 

Most will earn a special education certification in one to two years, depending on whether they have completed prior coursework, said Dahncke, executive director of the University of Indianapolis’ Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning, which coordinates the programs. 

“The idea is to try to inject 300 new special education teachers in the field,” he said. “But we’re only scratching the surface.”

Among the I-SEAL candidates is Drue Yates, a special education resource teacher working on an emergency permit at Greater Clark County Schools.  

After graduating with an education degree in May, Yates started as a permanent substitute at Parkwood Elementary then quickly became a resource teacher. Instead of running a large classroom, Yates works all day with small groups of students on academic and behavior skills.

“Given the opportunity and how much I’ve fallen in love with the job I do, I decided it would be best if I tried it,” Yates said. 

“Within the first month, I knew this was what I wanted to do,” he said. 

Teaching is a challenging field, Dahncke said, and special education comes with amplified challenges, including the pressure to meet each child’s individual needs.

Districts want more people like Yates.

“We’re looking for someone who, this is the type of work they want to do,” Dahncke said. “It’s not helpful if a teacher gets into the field and turns around and leaves. We need people who are equipped to do this, who want to do this.”

Dahncke said the state may consider expanding licensing programs to those who don’t have bachelor’s degrees, through apprenticeships or pathways that offer both a bachelor’s degree and a teaching license. 

Grow-your-own teachers

Bartholomew County Schools, partnering with St. Mary-of-the-Woods College, is doing just that. 

It runs a pilot program with nine paraprofessionals who work in schools during the day, and take online classes in the evening in either secondary special education or elementary education with an add-on certification for special education.

The district is paying for tuition, books, and fees for students who commit to working for the district for two years after graduation, said Gina Pleak, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources.

Pleak said the district started the program as a way to encourage more diversity in its teaching ranks — but the focus on special education is an added bonus. It costs around $12,000 per candidate per year, paid by COVID relief funds.

The aides take about four years to graduate, making the program a long-term investment.

“In education there is not a quick fix. If there is a quick fix, we’re probably sacrificing something,” Pleak said. 

About 15% of the district’s special educators, or 17 people, are working on the emergency permits that are set to expire, Pleak said. Nearly all are on track to continue working in the classroom after the deadline. 

Pleak said she hopes the state someday will allow greater flexibility for obtaining teaching licenses, by waiving some testing requirements if candidates have work experience, or offering tuition reimbursement if they enroll in an education program. 

“They already see the day-to-day work, they feel connected, they have purpose,” Pleak said. 

Alternative pathways to licensure are becoming more popular as school leaders recognize there are many barriers in traditional teacher prep programs.

“You have to quit your day job to student teach for 12 weeks. That’s unaffordable,” said Lucy Fischman, an independent education consultant who designed the Bartholomew program.

Teachers on emergency permits also may not be able to afford to complete their full license, Fischman said. And until the federal government said it would cease recognizing their licenses, they assumed they could simply renew their permits annually. 

Fischman wants the state to commit to funding the programs after emergency federal dollars expire in 2024.

“There’s nothing more joyful than working with kids. … The variety you get each day is something you can’t find anywhere else,” Fischman said. “The camaraderie you see among special education teachers is unmatched.”

Aleksandra Appleton covers Indiana education policy and writes about K-12 schools across the state. Contact her at aappleton@chalkbeat.org.

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