Spokane Public Schools: Growing our Own

“Growing our Own” Special Education Teachers:
The Spokane Public Schools Partnership with EWU, WSU, Greater Minds
By Dr. Mary Templeton
Superintendent, Washougal School District
Former HR Director, Certificated Personnel Spokane Public Schools

The teacher shortage has become a topic of conversation, research, and concern for those leading schools, both nationally and locally. Many reasons have been given for this current crisis, including fewer college students enrolling in teacher education programs, “baby boomers” leaving the workforce at increased rates, and the complexity/challenge of teaching in our current social context. In the state of Washington, there has been a shortage of teachers overall with a particularly high shortage of teachers in special-education programs. One in five principals last fall said they were in a “crisis mode” as they tried to find enough teachers to fill every classroom and nearly two-thirds of principals said they found it difficult to find teachers for special-education classrooms.

Spokane Public Schools has not been exempt from the struggle to find enough special education teachers and decided last summer to explore the idea of recruiting, training, and supporting some of our 400 paraeducators to become future special-education teachers.  A survey of all Para-Educators indicated that many had interest to gain certification and take on the responsibilities of leading classrooms. We learned that many of our paraeducators already had earned bachelor’s degrees or had completed A.A. programs and were interested in completing a B.A. and earning certification. Of those who responded to our survey, 87 had completed an A.A. degree and 44 already had completed a B.A. or B.S. degree.  Knowing that our paraeducators already assume much responsibility for assisting with instruction, classroom management, and relationship building, SPS was eager to create a pathway to “grow our own” future special-education teachers.

In partnership with Eastern Washington University, Washington State University, and Greater Spokane Incorporated Greater Minds, we set about partnering together to create an alternative route program that would allow para-educators with a B.A. or an A.A. to enter into an alternative route certification  program that would result in a teacher certification with endorsement in both K-8 and Special Education.  We wanted to ensure the following components were in place as we launched this “grow your own” program:

  1. Our paraeducators would have access to a tailored academic curriculum that valued some of their previous experience
  2. The program would have flexibility and would offer a chance to create individual plans, based on the paraeducators background, education, and training
  3. Our para-educators would maintain their employment with us, including wages and benefits
  4. We would arrange for student-teaching internships during the course of the paraeducators work year or during the summer
  5. We would ensure a robust support for “navigating” financial costs, university applications, and process complexities
  6. We would develop a “cohort” model to ensure we were maximizing relationship, support, and expertise
  7. The program would include approximately one academic year and two summer sessions of university work

Since conceptualizing this program, we have been able to successfully partner with Eastern Washington University to create a program that will result in a teaching certificate in special education and have been able to collaborate with Washington State University to create a program that will result in a Masters in Teaching.  As with any adult learner who returns to the university to complete certification or degree, there will be numerous challenges around finances, scheduling, motivation, and family commitments.  We have relied heavily upon our GSI Greater Minds “Navigator” to help clarify processes, encourage stretching, complete applications, and navigate the financial aspects of a return to college. 

All involved in this important work are excited to be able to provide a viable solution to the shortage of teachers in special education.  Additionally, we have all seen the tremendous opportunity to serve and value our current employees by providing this pathway to “up-skill” and access a higher earning potential.  One paraeducator shared, “I feel that we, as Para’s, already have so much experience and acquired knowledge about being a teacher”. We agree with this and are excited to “graduate” our first group of special-education teachers in the winter of 2019.

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