Amid a longtime shortage of special educators, one district hopes it’s monetary incentive plan will bring new talent to the classroom.
FULTON COUNTY, Ga. – “Our students are at stake.”
That’s the message from Fulton County Schools as they work to address not only a teacher shortage, but a need for more special educators.
“Special education has always faced staffing shortages,” Blake McGaha, executive director of the district’s Services for Exceptional Children, said. “But with the onset of the pandemic, we’ve seen a rise in staffing shortages. Teachers leaving the field and young college students not going into the field like we would like to see. “
Special education teachers typically have smaller class sizes and can tailor lessons for kids’ needs. In addition, McGaha said such teachers often take on the role of caseworker as much as teacher, working hand in hand with parents. As a result, teachers like Pagia George are critical to laying the groundwork for students’ success.
“The success comes in because we pinpoint maybe some gaps a student may have,” George, a special educator at Stonewall Tell Elementary School, explained. “But we also look really closely at how best a child learns and that’s how we’re going to teach that kiddo.”
Formerly a 4th grade teacher, George transferred into special education this past year, motivated by her own family experience.
“I have my own biological special needs exceptional baby, and I wanted to learn how to best help him, how he thinks and how he best learns as well as the best ways to advocate for him,” she said.
But finding teachers like George willing to take on extra certification and work has long been a challenge felt statewide.
In 2020, Georgia received a five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education, receiving $ 500,000 annually to address retention of special education teachers. Fulton County Schools is now also investing $ 5.2 million to both the hiring and retention of special educators.
RELATED: Fulton County Schools to pay out significant sums in incentives amid staffing challenges
- From full-time teachers to behavior interventionists, the school system is offering hiring incentives that range from $ 2,000 to $ 7,500
- For classroom teachers, retention incentives will range from $ 1,200 to $ 2,500
- All SEC teachers will be offered additional paid pre-planning days, ranging from $ 250 to $ 300 per day – plus $ 375 in daily supplements for additional summer planning days
To receive a hiring incentive, recipients must be fully employed in a qualifying position on or prior to Sept. 1. Recipients that do not remain employed with Fulton County Schools for two consecutive years will be asked to repay the incentive.
McGaha said such incentives were determined with current teacher input. The district is also planning an increase in paid planning days to allow teachers time for extra paperwork and time to “dig into their craft.”
In addition to the newly announced incentives, McGaha said the district is working with other stakeholders, such as universities, in order to strengthen partnerships and figure out ways to streamline the certification process.
“Ultimately, our students are at stake,” McGaha said. “When we do not have staff to fill roles, our students are the ones to feel the impact. Having staff such as Ms. George and others throughout this district who are so dedicated to this work in the classroom, that’s changing the lives of our kids. “
It’s all in the hopes of bringing more students into the special education field.
“So the worry is, ‘Where are we going to find these future students who are going to become teachers? And that’s why we’re trying to create this whole round picture,” McGaha added.
Parents hope the efforts are enough to narrow the gap, knowing such teachers are critical to student success.
Tiadora Battle, whose son was diagnosed with the profound hearing loss at birth, has witnessed the success her son has had In the small classroom setting with extra attention from Ms. George.
“He went from being, of course, like below average in different areas, which is reading, math. And over almost half a year he increased his performance academically, as well as noted some differences in his emotional behavior,” Battle said of her son’s progress. “He’s expanding and adapting into his surroundings and he’s done a phenomenal job here.”
“These teachers make such a big difference in our children’s lives and in their future,” Janee Wilson-Key agreed.
Wilson-Key’s child also goes to school at Stonewall Tell Elementary.
“And selfishly it makes our lives a lot easier knowing that we’re sending our child to school everyday in an environment where there’s teachers that are certified that understand the challenges our children have,” Wilson-Key said.
As both a teacher and a parent, George also understands the challenges but remains hopeful for the future of the field and her own family.
“I always want to come in and give my students what I want my baby to have,” she said. “I think my challenge to special educators is to go back to the passion, go back to that first love of teaching, and start there. “