Special Education teachers are an aging population: Local schools see shortage in speech and language pathologists and occupational therapists

California is currently facing as shortage of qualified teachers – including special education teachers – according to an article printed in September on US News on NBCNews.com.

The article cited a report, “Greatness by Design” released by the California Department of Education in September – a report designed to help improve how teachers are recruited, trained and mentored – that states “there are still shortages of qualified teachers in fields such as special education.”

Dr. Pia Wong, department chair for the Department of Teaching Credentials and professor at California State University Sacramento, says one reason for the shortage is teachers retiring without anyone to fill their positions. “When you look at the average age of teachers in special (education) and general education, it’s an aging population,” she explains. “Based on when people typically do retire or can retire, we know in the next 10 years we’re going to see very high numbers of retirement.”

Another reason, says Dr. Wong, is a growth in the population of students who qualify for special education services due to better diagnostic processes. “Because we have better tools for understanding the special needs that students have, there’s more students that are identified and therefore that creates a need for special programs, special classes, specialized teachers,” she says.

So what does this mean for Sacramento?

Inclusion Practice at SCUSD

In Sacramento City Unified School District, Director of Special Education Becky Bryant says there’s not a shortage of special education teachers overall, but there is a shortage in certain types of special education specialties, such as speech and language pathologists and occupational therapists.

Overall, Bryant says the amount of special education teachers they have is cyclical and will depend on the number of retirees they have each year and if there are new teachers coming to replace them. “Because Sacramento is the capitol, we have a lot of people that kind of move in and out because they have to relocate or something,” she adds.

According to Bryant, SCUSD employs 260 special education teachers and serves 88 schools plus charter schools. She says there are resource specialist programs at all school sites, and throughout the district there are special day programs.

Bryant says SCUSD is in the third year of implementation of an Inclusive Practice program at six schools in the district – C.K. McClatchy High School, California Middle School, Sutterville Elementary, Oak Ridge Elementary, Leataata Floyd Elementary, and Caleb Greenwood K-8 School. Through this model, says Bryant, students who would have been in a traditional special day class setting are now in general education, and the general educator and special education teacher co-teach together to provide instruction to all students in the classroom.

According to Bryant, Inclusive Practice helps teach students skills they will need when they become adults and enter into a diverse society, and it allows all students to learn together and be part of a community. “It’s not about singling out students with disabilities and sending them somewhere else,” she adds.

Special Programs & Inclusion at SJUSD

Over at San Juan Unified School District (SJUSD), Dayle Cantrall, program manager for special education, believes that special education is a growing need because there is not always a pool of credentialed teachers at the ready to fill any holes they may have. “When we have credentialed teachers, they usually end up in a job and they stay – they don’t face layoffs like general education teachers do, they’re always in high demand,” she adds.

According to Cantrall, SJUSD currently employs 307 special education teachers, including speech therapists and adaptive PE teachers. She says there is at a minimum a half-time resource teacher at every school site, and some high schools have upwards to nine special education teachers at a school site. And special education students range from those that need speech therapy to specialized programs for severe autism and the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

Cantrall says recent changes in special education programs at SJUSD include specialized programming for severe autism students and a new transition center for kids ages 18-22 this year.

Additionally, there are specialized inclusion programs from elementary through high school on a few campuses in the district, says Cantrall. “We have support built into the particular campuses, including increased number of instructional assistants,” she explains. Plus some campuses also have the capability for a special education student to attend the same school as their brothers and sisters through the support of “roving inclusion teachers” and resources teachers.

What It Takes

To help ensure there are qualified special education teachers for California schools, Dr. Wong says one thing CSUS has done is advocate for an admission cycle for the special education credential program every semester. Additionally, faculty has been active in securing grants from the federal government to help candidates interested in pursuing the special education credential.

For those considering becoming certified to become a special education teacher, Dr. Wong suggests they look into it by doing some research and visiting some classrooms. “I think people may have certain preconceptions about what it means to teach students with special needs,” she explains. “I think if they were to visit some classrooms, they would really see some positive, exciting things happen and maybe find it’s something that attracts them.”

Bryant says they look to hire special education teachers who have a passion for kids in general, and a passion to work with students with disabilities. “(We look for) people who have a clear understanding of how to manage a classroom, how to motivate kids, and who are really willing to work on creating relationships with kids,” she adds.

And Cantrall says if you have a calling to work with at-risk kids, you’re not afraid to collaborate, think outside the box, and do what’s needed to meet the best interests of that child’s needs – go for it. “We need people in special education who are not only dedicated to kids, but dedicated to paving the way so those kids can continue to learn in the least restrictive environment possible,” she says.

School Renaming Honors Long-Time Volunteer

Hundreds of families attended a block party on Saturday to celebrate Leataata “Tata” Floyd, the Seavey Circle activist who inspired the renaming of Jedediah Smith Elementary School in her honor. // Photos courtesy of The Sacramento Unified School District

“Hi Miss Tata,” is all you hear as a grandmotherly figure wearing a pink apron and her hair in a bun makes her way through streams of students and teachers at what was until recently known as Jedediah Smith Elementary School.

With almost every other step, Miss Tata stops for a hug or handshake as she makes her way towards the school’s cafeteria to start the tutoring program she runs for about 70 of the school’s students every day for the past 10 years. As long as students have been getting their homework done, Miss Tata engages them with a Polynesian dance program.

At the Sept. 6 Sacramento City Unified School District Board of Trustees meeting, board members voted in favor of changing the school’s name to Leataata Floyd Elementary to pay tribute to Miss Tata. The school community officially celebrated the name change on Sunday, Oct. 20 with a block party at the school – complete with Polynesian dance routines by both a professional group lead by her nephew and Tata Floyd’s students.

A Name Change
According to the school’s Principal Billy Aydlett, the idea for changing the name of the school to Leataata Floyd Elementary came about organically and as a way to make the school more relevant.

“Jedediah Smith was a very important figure in the history of America and exploring the Western United States, but he was definitely not relevant to the eyes of the families and our students,” Aydlett says. “The most important piece among many pieces to our redesign is making sure that our kids like school and that it’s relevant to them.”

Aydlett says a parent suggested finding a way to recognize Floyd for support and contributions she had made to the school and surrounding community throughout the years. “She never wants any attention, she never wants any recognition, but we thought about how we could best start the process of getting her some recognition, and the idea of renaming the school came up,” he says.

When Aydlett proposed the idea to Floyd, her first reaction was a firm ‘no’. After support from her family and community members, Floyd finally gave her blessing, allowing Aydlett and supporters of the name change to petition the SCUSD Board and ultimately have it pass.

Now with all the media attention surrounding this decision – including reporters from as far away as Australia calling for interviews – she says all she wants to do is “lay low” and do things with the students she teaches, whom she affectionately refers to as “my kids.”

“If it wasn’t for (the kids), nothing like this (would) happen,” Floyd explains. “Without their participation in what I’m doing, I wouldn’t be doing (this) and what I’m doing now (would not have) made (it) this far because it was never about me – it was always about (the) kids, always.”

To Tutoring…
Although not a professional educator herself, teaching is definitely in Floyd’s blood. Born and raised in Samoa, both her mother and father were teachers. She recalls when she was in second grade, her father would travel to each island via canoe to teach Algebra. And three of her siblings are teachers in Samoa, including a brother that is the head of all high schools in the country.

About 28 years ago Floyd moved her family to Sealey Circle across from the elementary school, which her children attended and her grandchildren currently attend. During that time, she says she volunteered off and on for the school, and now is there every day running the tutoring and Polynesian dance programs.

When the school bell rings at 3 p.m., about 70 students each day filter into the school’s cafeteria for the tutoring program. Floyd says the tutoring program takes about one hour and she has assistance from about 20 McClatchy High School students who come by twice a week to provide homework help. “They come full force when they come,” Floyd says.

On this particular Wednesday, every seat in the cafeteria was taken by students actively working on their homework because they know if they don’t complete it, they can’t dance.

“When they miss three homework (assignments), they cannot dance … until (they) catch up with those three homework (assignments),” Floyd says. She works with the school’s teachers to make sure the students in her tutoring and dance programs have turned in their homework assignments.

One such teacher is Lanie Cabanlit, a second and third grade teacher at Leataata Floyd Elementary who has been at the school for four years. She believes the tutoring program has really helped her students by giving the kids a positive tutoring experience they actually look forward to. “Sometimes you think tutoring, eh, but since it’s her running the program, they get really excited about going,” she explains.

Cabanlit says the program helps the school by providing homework assistance to kids who need the extra help. “If somebody’s there every day after school, then that helps us teachers a lot,” she adds.

… To Dancing
Once the tutoring portion of the afternoon is over, it’s on to the Polynesian dancing.

Floyd cultivated her dancing skills after coming from Samoa to San Francisco in 1961 to attend college. She said to help pay for books and other school needs, she and her sister would perform Polynesian dance numbers at a local venue on Friday and Saturday evenings.

After not dancing for a long time, Floyd was given the opportunity to start a Polynesian dance class at the school, which includes girls and boys from preschool to sixth grade. “Even though I’m strict with them, they all like it, they all love it,” she says.

Two of those students taking the Polynesian dance class are the 6-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son of Melissa Segura, who lives across the street from Leataata Floyd Elementary. She says the dancing, which both her children started this year, gives them inspiration. “It gives them something to look forward to after their homework,” she adds.

And Aydlett feels the Polynesian dance is very relevant to many of the cultures the student body represents, and it provides an opportunity for students to do something that is artistic and performance based. “This is a great extension and enrichment opportunity for our kids,” he adds. “And like in anything if kids are having fun and kids are feeling positive at school, that’s going to translate into them being more successful in the classroom.”

The “Perfect Choice”

Cabanlit believes the school renaming was the “perfect choice” because Floyd is a permanent fixture at the school the students can relate to, plus she brings a positive attitude and hope for the students. “I think all she wants is for the kids to be successful with whatever they want to do, and she would give whatever she can to push these kids to success,” she adds. “I think that’s what’s really great about her.”

Aydlett says having a community member take such a role and interest in the success of his school and students has been a “humbling expression of service” and an inspiration to him. “It’s just so amazing when she gives so much, it makes me want to work harder and give more in service for some of the families with the biggest obstacles in our entire city,” he says.

And for her part, Floyd would like to see Leataata Floyd Elementary specialize in teaching math and English. And she plans on doing everything she can to help her namesake and those who attend it succeed.

“They don’t know what’s coming because I told (Mr. Aydlett) … since the school is going to be in my name, I’m not going to let it slide,” she adds. “I’m going to make sure that this is going to be the school.”