The Growing Demand for Master’s Prepared Special Education Teachers Across Florida
In Florida, special education is referred to as “exceptional student education (ESE).” The Florida Department of Education defines an “exceptional student” as any child with disabilities who needs specially designated instruction and related services.
Florida teachers with the specialized training and education required to work with exceptional students are in short supply – especially those with training at the master’s level. In fact, an April 2016 Miami Today piece went so far as to refer to the teacher shortage as “critical.”
The Florida Board of Education is expected to identify critical teacher shortage areas and report back to the state’s Commissioner of Education each year. Hardly anyone was surprised to learn that special ed teachers were among those that were on the 2016 list.
In fact, Broward County Public Schools’ Superintendent Robert Runcie has described a “perfect storm” of factors creating a huge demand for specialized teachers, specifically those with the training to work with the state’s exceptional students.
According to the US Department of Education, of the 2.4 million students in the Florida school system, around 322,000 qualify for some type of exceptional student education. Most students’ disabilities fall into one of these categories:
- 140,975 students with a specific learning disability
- 78,506 students with a speech or language impediment
- 27,046 students with an intellectual disability
- 21,541 students with emotional disturbances
- 19,387 students on the autism spectrum
- 3,590 students with hearing impairment
- 1,197 students with visual impairments
- 479 students with traumatic brain injuries
These students are guaranteed equal access to education through ESE programs that operate in general population classrooms, specially designated classrooms, and even separate schools devoted to ESE. These programs can include traditional education techniques as well as adaptive technology and specially designed curricula.
Funding for exceptional student teacher salaries and classroom accommodations comes from two primary sources:
- The state’s general education budget – $19.7 billion in the 2015-2016 school year
- The state’s exceptional student education guaranteed allocation – $950.8 million, part of the general education budget
Translating Funding Into Transformative ESE Programs with the Help of Master’s Prepared Educators
This funding goes to support ESE classrooms, equipment, and teachers throughout the state. The Miami area is home to some great examples of the kind of ESE programs this funding has helped support, all of which have come to rely on master’s prepared ESE teachers:
Miami-Dade County Autism Intensive Community Academies – Relying on the expertise of teachers with advanced training and experience working with children with autism, this district has established seven autism academies based in schools throughout Miami-Dade County. Teachers use technology, visual supports, and a wide array of communication tools to engage students in academic and social-behavioral topics.
K-12 students on the autism spectrum, especially those with speaking challenges, often attend specialized academies located on the campuses of:
- Homestead Senior High School
- South Dade Middle School
- Paul Bell Middle School
- Blue Lakes K-8 Center
- Gratigny Elementary School
- Redondo Elementary School
- Citrus Grove Elementary School
Positive Behavior Support Centers – There are 18 schools throughout the Miami-Dade County district that have specially trained and educated ESE teachers who are experts in helping students achieve behavioral change through positive reinforcement. Many of the students enrolled in these programs have emotional disturbances, intellectual disabilities, ADD/ADHD, or are on the autism spectrum. Teachers in the Positive Behavior Support Centers focus on strengthening students’ social behavior, applying the evidenced-based behavior modification techniques they learned during graduate studies.
Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired – Skilled special education teachers have been helping blind and visually impaired students at Miami Lighthouse since 1931. Teachers at this state-of-the-art 50,000 square-foot facility provide vision rehabilitation treatment and teach students Braille and other technology-based tools for reading. Miami Lighthouse also prides itself on its music production program, which provides the school’s young performers with professional training. The less privileged students here are able to take advantage of free eye exams and glasses.
Wingate Oaks Center in Fort Lauderdale – This is a public K-12 school dedicated to serving exceptional students whose needs are best met within a small structured environment. Students at this facility have at least one handicap that might include medical fragility, physical impairments, an intellectual disability, complex behavior issues, or autism. Most teachers at this school have advanced education and training in special education that enables them to live up to the school’s motto: “Teaching the skills of life to open a world of possibilities.”
In fact, one teacher from the Wingate Oaks Center was recognized as the 2013 Broward County Arts Teacher of the Year in visual arts. Keri Porter believes art is for everyone and is truly honored to help serve the needs of students with severe challenges. Even while teaching and simultaneously earning her master’s degree in special education with a focus in autism, she has still managed to keep her students at the forefront. This might have something to do with how she has come to understand the role of art. In addition to being a pleasurable experience, Porter explains, “Art is much deeper than that. It can heal wounds, help children learn, help people communicate, and express hidden emotions.”