How the Lake Oswego School District is getting creative to fill special education teacher vacancies
As the Lake Oswego School District kicks off the new school year and ushers students into the classroom, district administrators continue to look for staff to assist the special education department.
According to data collected from the Learning Policy Institute, 48 states have reported staffing shortages in their special education departments. Lake Oswego School District mirrors this national trend, as officials are looking for 30 educators to fill vacant positions in their K-12 classrooms and the adult services program. Six of these positions are currently filled with temporary staff.
"These are mainly the assistants to our special education teachers. All of our main instructor roles are filled but …we are looking for people who help them," said Scott Schinderle, executive director of student services for the district.
Schinderle said that the district started noticing dwindling staff numbers last year as students returned to in-person learning.
"Last school year was the first time we were really noticing the shortage and the need to fill these positions," Schinderle said.
Statewide, school districts have seen a dip in employment in their special education departments after COVID-19. According to a report by the National Coalition on Personnel Shortages in Special Education and Related Services, shortages of special education teachers is not new and has been a trend for almost a decade. But other studies, like one from researchers at Brown University, say that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the turnover rate of the role.
In Lake Oswego, Schinderle said most left to take on another role.
"People shifted in what they chose to do after COVID. Some took fun, new online opportunities — or different positions altogether with possibly a different rate of pay, different working conditions, or (they) just entered a different career path that better fits their work-life balance," he said.
Despite the vacant positions in special education assistants, Schinderle said the district continues to be operational.
"We are providing all services that are necessary to students; we've had to make sure that we are prioritizing special education and other service needs," he said. "We're still able to provide what we need, but it is impacting work. It's impacting (in terms of) having the same amount of work with less people."
Instead of segregated classrooms with students with additional learning needs separated from their peers, Lake Oswego integrates all students. The district also offers specialty classes focusing on social-emotional learning, autism, functional life and adaptable skills for students with additional needs.
"Even if a student accesses one of those classes, they are still included in the general education population classes. It will vary by individual student, but all students are included," Schinderle said.
To help curb the missing seats in the teacher's lounge, the Lake Oswego School District got creative at the start of the school year. Schinderle said the district partnered with a hiring agency to fill temporary positions as they seek longer-term educators.
"We have 30 vacant positions … six of those are filled by temporary staff while we are actively hiring and recruiting for those other 24 positions across the district," he said.
The district is also using substitutes to fill special education assistant vacancies while they continue to recruit and hire permanent staff.
Additionally, Schinderle said the district heightened its presence at job fairs, posted on job boards and contacted local media agencies to help spread the word.
Just a few miles away, the West Linn-Wilsonville School District is avoiding the national trend. Officials say it may be due to its inclusive classroom models that are similar to Lake Oswego's.
The school district is only looking to fill one temporary special education position in the coming months, according to Lauren Brigsby, director of student services.
"I am well aware of the national and local trend (of special education teacher shortages) and I do think one reason we've missed out on it is that we're always recruiting as early as we can and trying to fill those spots with existing (colleagues) consistently throughout the year," she said.
Brigsby also said that the district's "inclusive practices" might prompt teachers in the district to stay in their roles. Like Lake Oswego, the district integrates students with all learning needs into one classroom. A paraeducator or learning specialist may help the student depending on that student's needs.
"We have a deep commitment to inclusive practices and make sure all students have access to education in their neighborhood schools and with their peers. I think special education educators knowing that a school district is creating opportunities for their students and letting them have opportunity for significant team building and relationships with support keeps them (in the role)," Brigsby said.
Other solutions that districts across Oregon are turning to include pay raises for special education staff, bonuses, more planning periods, among other added benefits.
"I want to stress that we are providing the necessary services to students, but we are getting very creative within each local school to make sure that all student services are provided," Schinderle said. "A bit of optimism is that we are finding and still getting a regular flow of applicants within our positions. Our numbers continue to adjust and we're tracking a hopefully continued downward trend of that (vacancy) number getting smaller and smaller as time goes on."
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