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Growing need for special education teachers in North Dakota has UND program looking for candidates

The lack of special education teachers, including speech pathologists and other related positions, puts a strain on teachers working in the field, and their students.

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GRAND FORKS — UND and special educators say the need for special education teachers has grown critical in the state, and some are calling for changes that will allow for on the job training.

While UND has developed different educational paths to more quickly graduate qualified teachers, special education unit directors are dealing with open positions. The lack of special education teachers, including speech pathologists and other related positions, puts a strain on teachers working in the field, and their students.

“I've got openings all over the place and you don't get anybody to apply for these positions anymore,” said Dan Juve, director of the Upper Valley Special Education Unit. The unit covers school districts’ special education needs in a multi-county area, including in the cities of Cavalier, Emerado, Grafton, Park River, Larimore and others.

Juve said he has a staff of around 70 full-time employees, but at least five openings remain. One person, he said, came out of retirement to work a few hours a week — Juve doesn’t count that position as filled. He said he isn’t sure why people don’t apply for the open jobs.

“I do not know the answer to that,” he said. “I wish I did, because then I would have the answer on how to get it fixed.”

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Juve has been on the job for 23 years. When he first started, he said he was told special education teachers usually stayed in their positions for seven years. That number went down to three and it’s at one year now, he said.

With teachers spread thin, morale is low, and students lack a needed component of their education: consistency. When teachers leave their jobs, it takes time for students to build connections with a new person.

“They have to get that rapport back,” Juve said.

According to data sent to the Herald by Ellie Shockley, an institutional researcher with the North Dakota University System, the school districts have remained constant in their need for special education teachers since at least the 2019-2021 school year, and likely much earlier than that. That year, there were about 1,640 full-time teachers working in special education, spread across a variety of specialties.

Of those teachers, about 63 were working with irregular certification — people working with provisional, temporary or emergency certification. Fifty-three positions that year went unfilled. When added together with the number of irregularly certified teachers, the state lacked 116 full-time workers. The state needed about 107 people to fill jobs in 2020-2021 and 112 for the 2021-2022 school year, and the bulk of those jobs fell in categories that didn’t require special credentials such as teaching visually impaired people, or offering psychological services.

Juve said training people — people who are shy of attaining the appropriate license, or who have a different educational background — could fill some of those positions, and they could attain licensure while working. Existing rules at the state Education Standards and Practice Board won’t let him do so.

Juve said he’d like to hire a university student in August — a student who has completed most of their coursework but has yet to undertake the student teaching component — but will have to wait till December, when they graduate, leaving him short in the interim.

An accelerated program at UND

To meet the need of special educators in the state, UND has developed accelerated programs that allow a student to work while earning a master’s degree, through the university’s Special Education Resident Teacher program. Candidates for the program include people who have a teaching degree, but are either recently graduated or unemployed.

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SERTP is a subset of the school’s master’s program in special education. It provides people with a stipend, then places them with a school district in the state. Students work full time in an internship, and all the classes are online. What students learn one day, they can use at their job the next.

It’s a one-year program, with the intent to help fill special education positions with qualified candidates. Rural candidates are also welcome because of the online component, and because of the need for teachers in those areas. The program can accept an incoming class of 25 people, and the deadline to apply is March 15.

“We're literally all over,” said Amy Jacobson, SERTP director. “Once you name that place, we've either been there or we are currently there.”

SERTP features a mentorship facet as well. Students have a designated person at their school who acts as a mentor, and helps the student implement into the classroom what they learn in school. The mentorship component is twofold, as they also work with a UND mentor who visits regularly with the students and functions as an advisor who can connect the student with other people in the program. Jacobson said SERTP participants are almost always hired by the school district where they do their internship.

Jacobson reaches out to people like Juve, to assess what their needs are. She scouts the region for candidates for the program, and then reaches out to special education directors to see if they have a place for them. Frequently they do. Jacobson said this year is the first time they have placed a person in the Beulah, North Dakota area.

Jacobson said she is aware of the critical need for special education teachers. It's been ongoing throughout her career, but has hit the tipping point recently. She’s hoping the resident teacher program can help meet the need in the state, and in northwestern Minnesota.

“We're always looking for special ed teachers,” she said. “I would say today we need them more than we've ever needed them in the past.”

jacobson-amy_photo.jpg
Amy Jacobson, director of the Special Resident Teacher Program at UND.
Contributed / UND

Adam Kurtz is the community editor for the Grand Forks Herald. He covers higher education and other topics in Grand Forks County and the city.

Kurtz joined the Herald in July 2019. He covered business and county government topics before covering higher education and some military topics.

Tips and story ideas are welcome. Get in touch with him at akurtz@gfherald.com, or DM at @ByAdamKurtz.

Desk: 701-780-1110
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