Why California Needs Master’s-Prepared Special Education Teachers Now More Than Ever
The Washington Post didn’t mince words in its January 2016 report, “Why California’s teaching shortage could worsen – and how to reverse it.” Citing a study just published by the Learning Policy Institute, this article describes how the supply of new teachers in the state is at a 12-year low, with the shortage being, most acute in mathematics, science, and special education.
According to the US Department of Education (DOE), out of a total student population of 5.75 million, more than 10 percent of California’s students – 686,000 – have disabilities. Nearly half of those students – 45.9 percent – are students with learning disabilities.
According to the DOE, California’s students with disabilities fall into these categories:
- 277,683 students with a specific learning disability
- 115,558 students with a speech or language impediment
- 58,641 students on the autism spectrum
- 25,871 students with emotional disturbances
- 37,944 students with an intellectual disability
- 10,348 students with hearing impairment
- 3,449 students with visual impairments
- 1,725 students with traumatic brain injuries
Making sure these students get a fair and equal shake at education means making a serious commitment to funding solutions. For countries like Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Sri Lanka $76.6 billion represents a Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However in California this is the amount spent on K-12 public schools – $69.1 billion from state sources and $7.5 billion from federal sources.
Special education is an important part of this, accounting for a total of $857.4 million in the 2016-2017 school year. According to the California Department of Education, this breaks down as follows:
- $360.1 million mental health services
- $271.6 million for general special education
- $145.3 million for students living at out-of-home facilities
- $74.4 million for early education preschool programs
- $3 million high-cost students with special needs
- $3 million for high-cost non-public school placement of special needs students
A Growing Reliance on Master’s-Prepared Special Ed Teachers
Federal legislation states that schools must provide, ‘specially defined instruction, and related services, at no cost to parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability.’ This is where master’s-prepared special education teachers come in. To prepare all students to face tomorrow’s challenges and successes, California has developed a broad range of dedicated schools that are devoted to providing options for students with special needs, including:
- Benjamin Banneker Career and Transition Center in Los Angeles
- Special Education Services at the San Jose Unified School District
- Sophia T. Salvin Special Education Center in Los Angeles
- Special Education Division with the San Diego Unified School District
- Perez Career and Transition Center in Los Angeles
- The Laurel School in San Francisco
- Westview College Prep in Los Angeles
- Spectrum Center Schools throughout the state including in Oakland, Inglewood, San Jose, and Fairfield
This is just a small sample of the options available for meeting the special needs of students throughout the state. For example, the Special Education Division in the San Diego Unified School District operates the K-12 education center Riley School. Reserved for students who have serious behavior and emotional problems, master’s prepared special education teachers here take on important responsibilities that include:
- Providing close one-on-one monitoring and supervision
- Creating opportunities for academic and social success
- Providing career and vocational counseling
- Encouraging students to take advantage of an in-house therapeutic program
- Assessing what kind of special education services students need, such as curricula designed for students with autism, speech and language therapy, or adapted physical education and mobility training
The list of resources above doesn’t even touch on the myriad special education programs that are part of regular public schools. Atwater Elementary School in the Los Angeles Unified School District is a good example of a place that offers special education resources in a general population environment. Its Special Education Department is made up of seven talented and specially educated teachers who are committed to ensuring that each of their students lives up to their full potential – academically and in society. They help the school live up to the district’s overall policy that no special needs student shall be excluded from any activity or denied any benefit based on their disability. This translates into providing options that include:
- Individual work-study with a special education teacher in a general-population classroom
- Extra after school and summer programs to help students stay caught up with their grade level
- Programs in a separate classroom during part of the school day to work towards a specific goal or provide specific training, such as social interaction exercises for students on the autism spectrum
- Weekly meetings with an assigned special education teacher to evaluate a student’s progress and determine possible changes to a special needs accommodation plan
Special Educators Are Making a Difference in the Lives of Their Students, and Earning a Master’s Degree Has Helped Them Do It
Special needs students and former students are vibrantly interacting professionally, socially, and civically throughout California. This fact is a testament to the tens of thousands of special education teachers across the state who have dedicated their careers to helping all students achieve success.
One example of such a teacher is Janet Ratkovic-Feilen, a special education teacher at Sevick School in San Diego County’s Cajon Valley Union School District. Ratkovic-Feilen specializes in working with young students and their parents to help families tackle the obstacles that come with disabilities and restrictive medical conditions. She draws on one particularly inspirational incident she remembers from her college days when she happened to interact with her neighbor’s young child who was experiencing the serious debilitating effects as a spider bite and suffering symptoms similar to those of a stroke. This taught her about the family-inclusive care at-risk children need to have to be successful in school and later on in life.
When Ratkovic-Feilen was selected to develop Cajon Valley School District’s early intervention program, she remembered this experience from when she was a university student and today has created a special education program that is renowned for being family inclusive.
Megan Gross is another example of an instructor who is making an important difference. With a nine-year tenure as a special education teacher at Del Norte High School in San Diego, Gross specializes in working with students on the autism spectrum. Leaning on her extensive education and experience, Gross has created a classroom that serves as a haven for students who need the kind of support that gives them the confidence to move outside their boundaries and achieve new goals.
As detailed in Gross’ national teacher of the year nomination for 2017, “Her classroom is a place where students feel welcome and can access the resources needed to thrive academically and socially in general education settings.” Gross didn’t start out on the typical path to becoming a special ed teacher either; at first she earned her bachelor’s degree in genetics. Later on she decided to go back to school and improve her credentials with graduate studies concentrating on special education.