‘Everybody’s hurting for those teachers’

Area districts struggling to fill special education positions

ALPENA — Northeast Michigan school districts have been struggling to hire special education teachers, and it looks like it won’t get easier for at least a couple of districts this summer.

Alpena Public Schools has an open special education teacher position this summer officials hope to fill before school starts in August.

The need is severe, Superintendent John VanWagoner said that, if someone applies, the district would do whatever it takes to interview them within 24 to 48 hours. The district would even complete an interview through Skype or on the phone if someone isn’t able to complete an interview in Alpena.

“We’re trying to address it and giving it our full attention every bit we can,” VanWagoner said.

It’s not just a Northeast Michigan problem.

VanWagoner said that, across the education industry, there are fewer college students going into special education. He said one issue is the lack of ability to give salary increases and, for brand-new teachers who might have student loans, they might not want to live below the poverty line.

“We clearly can see by looking at our teacher preparation institutions in the state of Michigan how many that are graduating and see how many openings there are and see there are more openings than there are students,” VanWagoner said. “Everybody’s hurting for those teachers.”

Alcona Community Schools has had an open special education teacher position for over a year, Superintendent Dan O’Connor said. A second special education position opened recently because of a teacher moving to another district, so Alcona has to fill two positions this summer.

O’Connor said Alcona is looking at creative possibilities to fill the positions, which may include hiring teachers who are working toward their degrees and taking advantage of substitute permits from the state to do on-the-job training while getting a degree.

“Everyone in the region is looking for special education teachers and there are none,” O’Connor said.

Special education teachers play an important role, because students want consistency with teachers, and having a revolving door of them will impact student trust, O’Connor said.

“For some of our more at-risk students who need the most support, that’s just very frustrating from my lens in trying to figure out ways to prevent that,” he said.

Making things more complicated for Alcona is that a combined almost 90 years of special education teaching experience will be retiring from the district within the next five years. O’Connor said that concerns the district and it’s being proactive in finding the next wave of special education teachers. The district has five special education teacher positions.

“I don’t anticipate finding special education teachers to get any easier here in the next couple of years, so very worrisome,” O’Connor said. “We’ve got a big job ahead of us to be more active in the recruiting process for people who want to go into education.”

Scott Reynolds, superintendent of the Alpena-Montmorency-Alcona Educational Service District, said there are currently no openings within the ESD. Historically, he said, there are a strong number of applicants for other positions, but not for special education teaching jobs.

Julie Goldberg can be reached at 989-358-5688 or jgoldberg@thealpenanews.com. Follow her on Twitter @jkgoldberg12.