The ongoing teacher shortage has hit special education students particularly hard in the state's largest elementary school district — which happens to be in Bakersfield.
Roughly 40 percent of the special ed teaching staff in the Bakersfield City School District last year were new, probationary or intern teachers, many of whom were still in the process of earning a credential while managing classrooms filled with challenging students, according to a district seniority list updated this spring.
Shirley Nicholas, BCSD’s director of special education, confirmed that 87 out of 201 special education classrooms last year were staffed with first- or second-year teachers.
“Some are not even probationary,” Nicholas said. “A chunk of these teachers haven’t even completed a teacher credentialing program.”
It's a shame because special education students are among the community's most vulnerable pupils, said Steve Comstock, president of the Bakersfield Elementary Teachers Association
“Special ed is what drags at my heart the most because these are our neediest kids, and we have our least trained people in front of almost half of them," he said. "How do we justify that to ourselves?”
The problem is statewide, inflamed by an already punishing teacher shortage that has hit Central California particularly hard. Filling special education vacancies proves difficult since the work tends to be more challenging, special education directors said.
The number of teachers earning education specialist credentials required to teach special ed students declined 18 percent between 2012 and 2016. Fewer than 2,900 earned the credentials last year, according to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.
The requirements for BCSD’s intern teachers are that they pass the California Basic Educational Skills Test — a baseline exam required of even all substitute teachers statewide — and enroll in a special education university program so that they’re eligible for a provisional intern teaching permit or short-term staff permit. Those waivers are good for one year.
There were 4,074 such permits issued in 2015-16, almost five times as many that were issued in 2012-13, according to the CTC.
Those teachers often rely on support staff with full caseloads for guidance, said Roberta Joseph, a speech language therapist at Leo G. Pauly Elementary School.
"It's a constant, 'I don't know what to do,'" Joseph said. "Then when behaviors arrive because your little guys don't know how to follow directions, the best way they know how to is hit and kick, so we have injuries."
Beyond that, new special ed teachers don't get the same support general education teachers do by being able to come together to discuss curriculum and behavioral issues on a regular basis, Joseph said. In some cases, intern teachers are the only special education teachers in their grade level, leaving them without the traditional camaraderie and support they'd receive if they were general education teachers.
“They’re really in the educational trenches,” Nicholas said of those provisional teachers. “They barely have bachelor’s degrees and are trying to take this on at the same time. It’s exceedingly challenging.”
The worst part? Even if the intern and probationary teachers spend months at the district and perform well, the district must drop them if they cannot pass the California Subject Examination for Teachers, or CSET, at the end of their second year because the state doesn’t allow provisional teaching for any longer than that, Nicholas said.
That happened to 51 teachers at BCSD last year out of a total of about 180, she said.
And that means all the training delivered to those teachers is lost.
“We have to release them and pick up a whole new crew every year,” Nicholas said.
Despite that, special education student progress hasn't been hindered, Joseph said, something she attributes to the majority of special ed teacher rotations occurring in kindergarten. Those students would be getting a new teacher for grades one through three in most cases regardless.
The district oftentimes takes the teachers that had not yet passed the CSET and brings them back as long-term substitute teachers, Nicholas said, but state educational code doesn’t allow for a sub to stay in a single classroom for longer than 20 days. The result is that they get bounced around a lot, Nicholas said.
“Fully credentialed special ed teachers are hard to find, and I think the universities are cranking them out as fast as they can,” said Steele, conceding, however, that there’s little incentive for teachers to go into such a challenging field.
First-year teachers holding bachelor’s degrees earn about $46,000 annually, regardless of their field.
Special education teachers earn a bonus that up until last year remained stagnant for about 15 years, Comstock said. It's now $750 annually – an amount that still isn't enough, he said.
“They could go the general ed route, take fewer classes, graduate, and get paid just as much,” Steele said.