School district searches for special ed teachers

Posted: Sunday, April 13, 2008

School districts around the state are in full-fledged hiring drives at this time of year, and Juneau is no exception.

The Juneau School District posted a new video on its Web site recently that details the joys of living and teaching here. District officials are setting up shop at job fairs trying to lure the best and brightest to come teach in Alaska's capital.

And this year, like years past, many of the job openings are for special education teachers and related positions.

"We have to step it up, otherwise we could be left without those services," said David Newton, the district's director of student services.

There's a lack of special education teachers and related positions both statewide and nationally, according to Art Arnold, the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development's special education director.

"We're in a world of hurt, as everyone else is," Arnold said, adding that there's been a demand in recent years for more specialized training for special education teachers.

"The more the specialty, the greater the need," Arnold said. "It seems like the greater the need the greater the shortage."

Alaska Teacher Placement, a joint venture between the University of Alaska and many of the state's school districts, recruits teachers for districts around the state. Its director, Melissa Hill, said special education teachers and related positions are some of the toughest to find.

Beefed-up workloads and mountains of paperwork are responsible for some of the high turnover, Hill said. Even Alaska's urban school districts have a hard time recruiting and holding on to qualified candidates, she said.

"If they are struggling, you can imagine what it's like for some of our rural areas," Hill said.

But being in an urban setting presents problems of its own, Newton said. Juneau serves as a hub for children with special needs, he said, "Because of the medical and mental health facilities in town, people will gravitate here."

And adding to the district's load is the fact the school district also is responsible for some students with special needs from the time they turn 3 to when they graduate with a diploma or turn 22, Newton said.

Newton said there are about 62 special education teachers employed by the district and 114 in related special education positions.

As of Friday afternoon, the district's Web site listed 13 openings for special education teachers and related positions.

The number of openings is a lot lower than previous years, Newton said. Two years ago there were about 30 vacancies, he said.

Newton credits the decline in turnover, in part, to the district's hiring more educators, including two new special education support positions that have helped ease some of the workload.

Breea Mearig, a special education teacher at Harborview Elementary School, credited the district for making changes that "make it a more doable job."

She said there were still little things the district could do to make it easier for special education teachers, but added that job wasn't for the faint of heart.

"You have to want to be with that population of kids," Mearig said. "Because that's the only thing that keeps you there."

• Contact reporter Alan Sudermanat 523-2268 or e-mail

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