SIOUX FALLS (AP) – A university in Sioux Falls is reviving a teaching program after a 20-year hold to help put a dent in the nationwide special education teaching shortage.
Augustana University will be launching an online-only master's of arts and special education program this fall, in hopes of giving more teachers access to proper certifications, said Laurie Daily, chairwoman of the university's education department.
"In South Dakota, there's a critical shortage of special ed in the rural areas and the more urban areas like Sioux Falls, where they consistently fall short in trying to meet the needs and have certified teachers in their classrooms," Daily told the Argus Leader.
Nationally, the number of special education teachers has dropped more than 17 percent in the last decade, according to a December article by Education Week, a nonprofit news source for K-12 education. But special education in general has been a critical shortage area in teacher education and certifications since the 1980s in all states, Daily said.
At about that same time, Augustana started its initial special education teaching program. But the program faded between 2004 and 2005 because students wanted something other than face-to-face education, Daily said.
Now, 36 interested students can specialize in one of two areas, K-12 or early childhood special education, and manage the workload from wherever they are, Daily said.
The new special education teaching program joins one of at least two others offered in the state, with one at the University of Sioux Falls and the other at University of South Dakota.
Still, the struggle behind the shortage lies in actually attracting educators to the classroom, Daily said.
"It's a high burn-out field, so the demands are great," she said.
And districts across South Dakota have had to work with the Department of Education to have educators become alternatively licensed, Daily said. That means those hired into special education positions are often completing the requirements to become certified while they're teaching.
But Augustana's new program will allow certified teachers to simply add a specialization to the degree they already have.
"We're building on a long history of undergraduate programming in special education, and graduate programming in special ed," Daily said. "We wanted to design a program that would be responsive to needs not only within South Dakota, but across the country."
Sioux Falls School District has stayed ahead of the shortage for the most part, said Deborah Muilenburg-Wilson, the Sioux Falls School District's special services program director.
But in the last five years, the district has had to step up its game to recruit and retain special education teacher candidates, Muilenburg-Wilson said.
With about 300 special education teachers district-wide, filling open positions sometimes takes right up until the beginning of a new school year, Muilenburg-Wilson said. Because of the shortage, the district has had to move up its timeline for hiring new educators.
"Every year, when we get that last special ed teaching position filled, HR and I do a little 'woohoo,'" Muilenburg-Wilson said. "Then I thank goodness I'm in Sioux Falls because it's probably an appealing place for teachers to come to. I'm not going to pretend we have some advantages."
Muilenburg-Wilson is on the Augustana University education advisory board and helped design parts of the program.
Having more certified teachers in special education helps solves two main issues, she said. The first — and main reason educators go into the field — is the service element behind helping a student with disabilities learn in a classroom setting, she said.
"The other part you can't pretend isn't there is the whole compliance and regulatory part, which is kind of laden in paperwork," Muilenburg-Wilson said. "Sometimes, people choose special ed because of this intervention and work with youth. Then they get in the field and learn about this other piece, and that's harder for them."
Sarah Henrichs has been a special education teacher in the district for about 18 years. She's seen the strain of the shortage firsthand in both rural and urban school districts.
"Sioux Falls, I feel doesn't feel the shortage as small as some of the other towns around," said Henrichs, who works at McGovern Middle School. "But I have had positions I've worked with that aren't certified. They're not responsible for the paperwork piece, the legal documents that need to be done."
In some instances she's had to take over the other half of the position, and mentor teachers through the compliance side of the job, she said.
"The years it's happened, you're just busier. You just have so much more going on, your case load is so much larger than typical," she said. "When I seem to notice it is the year after, when I have a normal case load."
In response, the district has increased its number of student teachers and has hired instructional coaches to help new teachers during their first years, Muilenburg-Wilson said.
The district has also brought in a facilitator to help with the clerical side of the job and works closely with universities and colleges to make sure future educators know Sioux Falls is a potential career choice, she said.
"We've tried to put pieces in place to set ourselves above the level of support we provide to teachers," Muilenburg-Wilson said.
Augustana's new master's program will only add another layer of support for Sioux Falls. And as someone who grew up in a small town and moved to the largest city in the state, Muilenburg-Wilson said she knows the online program will do even more for potential educators in rural areas.
"I think about that school I went to, which doesn't exist anymore. There were good people who had the skills to be a teacher, but were committed to living in that part of the world or maybe had family ties and couldn't move," Muilenburg-Wilson said. "The Augie program will offer someone in that kind of situation an opportunity to pursue a special education teaching degree that you would not have had 20 years ago."