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Solving The Special Ed Teacher Shortage: Quality, Not Quantity

January 16, 2016

All over the United States, schools are scrambling to find qualified special education teachers. There just aren’t enough of them to fill every open position.

That means schools must often settle for people who are under-certified and inexperienced. Special ed is tough, and those who aren’t ready for the challenge may not make it past the first year or two.

Really good teacher preparation might be the difference. At least, that’s what the Lee Pesky Learning Center believes.

In partnership with Boise State University, this nonprofit is working to overcome the shortage in Idaho, not just by filling vacancies, but by creating special education teachers fully prepared for the demands — and the rewards — of working with special-needs students.

The Pesky Center is housed in a one-story building in an office park near the Boise airport. It seems almost clinical, like a dentist’s office, except instead of cavities and dentures, there are worksheets and flashcards.

Any given day, students trickle in at the end of their school day. They work with an “education specialist,” tackling anything from multiplication tables to paragraph structure.

Helena (we’re using only her first name to protect her privacy) is one of 100 students here. She struggles to keep up with other kids in the 8th grade at her school, so she comes here once a week to work on her reading with a mentor.

This one-on-one approach is the Pesky Center’s bread and butter.

“All of the attention is focused on the instructional component,” says Evelyn Johnson. She’s the executive director of the Pesky Center, as well as a professor of special education at Boise State. “Like, what are we doing for this child and how are they responding and are they meeting their goals?

Johnson says the Pesky Center, founded in 1997, was initially established with one goal in mind: to help students with learning disabilities.

And right now, she says, one way they can do that is to address the teacher shortage.

For example, the West Ada schools, a district of more than 37,000 students just outside of Boise, had to replace nearly 20 percent of its special education staff last summer. That’s 37 new teachers that needed to come from somewhere.

Often, hiring so many people quickly means settling for quantity over quality. And these quick hires are way more prone to leave the job after two or three years.

And so, the Pesky Center has launched a new training program. Interested college graduates can apply to spend one year at the Center while also taking classes and earning a master’s in teaching through Boise State.

The program is called the Special Education Collaborative, and all of it — the training and the classes — will be covered by a scholarship from Alan and Wendy Pesky, the founders of the learning center.

It’s up and running with its first two students. Over the next few years, Johnson plans to accept up to 10.

So, this approach won’t fix the larger problem any time soon. Classrooms need to be filled now. But educators here say it may be the start of a long-term solution.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit

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