Special education teachers forge ties with Reading schools

Teacher shortages are having a substantial impact on school districts across the nation, particularly in the area of special education.

Two faculty members in the College of Education have embarked on a project that they hope will help relieve the special education teacher shortage in Pennsylvania, as well as forge a mutually beneficial partnership between Penn State and Reading School District, a high-poverty, Berks County district that presents challenges but also opportunities for aspiring special education teachers looking to make a difference.

In August 2019, Kathleen McKinnon and Mary Catherine Scheeler, both associate professors in the College of Education’s Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling, and Special Education (EPCSE), were approved for a $75,000 planning grant under the Innovative Teacher and Principal Residency (ITPR) grant program of the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE).

Kate McKinnon

Kathleen McKinnon

Credit: Provided

Their proposal, titled “PARTNERS: Preparing and Retaining Teachers Needed for Employment in Reading Schools” was selected for funding to support activities for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, 2020.

“Our goal is to make this sustainable,” McKinnon said. “What we really want to do is build interest (in teaching special education) in students from the Reading area.”

Under the terms of the planning grant, McKinnon and Scheeler, in conjunction with Reading School District administrators, are designing a plan that will be submitted to PDE for approval in September.

Depending on the amount of money they receive, they said, the grant could cover tuition for six to eight students for two semesters. The plan is for students majoring in special education to get trained in a teacher preparation program in their fifth through seventh semesters at University Park.

The students would go to Reading in the spring of their senior year to get a feel for the community through volunteering and tutoring in the schools. At that time, McKinnon said, they also would be taking two classes in areas such as urban education and psychological trauma, as many students in high-poverty environments such as Reading have experienced high trauma.

The students then would proceed to a full year of student teaching, as opposed to the typical 12-15 weeks, starting in the fall.

According to a fact sheet prepared by the Higher Education Consortium for Special Education (HECSE), in 2015-16 there was a national shortage of about 60,000 teachers. While STEM fields and foreign languages experience significant shortages, the special education field is in most dire need, with 48 states and the District of Columbia reporting shortages.

Reading School District is located between Harrisburg and Philadelphia in southeastern Pennsylvania and has 19 schools, including 13 elementary schools, five middle schools and one senior high school.

With more than 17,800 students and approximately 2,000 staff members, Reading School District is the fourth-largest school district in Pennsylvania. The urban school district located in a high-poverty community has 93% of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. A quarter of its students are English-language learners.

McKinnon and Scheeler said they visited Reading twice to discuss the proposed partnership with community leaders and educators.

“They are so excited about having Penn State students as potential employees,” Scheeler said.

Mary Catherine Scheeler

Mary Catherine Scheeler

Credit: Provided

According to McKinnon, a nationwide teacher shortage has been a chronic problem in special education, although Pennsylvania was spared for a number of years.

In recent years, however, changes in certification requirements have dealt a blow to the state’s special education teacher community. Since 2013, PDE has required educators teaching students with special needs in Pennsylvania to hold two certification areas (special education plus another certificate). As a result, the pool of potential special education teachers has dwindled, McKinnon said.

“The shortage that Pennsylvania is feeling now is significant. We are trying to build community for our students within the Reading community,” she said.

An additional goal of PARTNERS, McKinnon said, is to forge a closer connection between the Penn State Berks and University Park campuses and encourage potential special education teachers in the Reading area to start at Penn State Berks with the goal of eventually completing studies at University Park.

“The close proximity of the Berks campus to Reading allows convenience to students participating in the program in terms of students from University Park connecting with Penn State peers and facility benefits as needed,” said Jayne Leh, associate professor of special education and Elementary and Early Childhood Education program chair at Penn State Berks.

“In addition, because some of the Berks students transition to University Park, these students may be the ones who opt to return to Reading for the student teaching placement opportunity.”

Besides strengthening the University Park-Berks connection and providing Penn State students with valuable real-world experience, McKinnon said, the PARTNERS program could provide an incentive for College of Education graduates to take permanent teaching positions at Reading schools and put down roots in the area.

“I see (PARTNERS) as being a lever to increase special education teachers in our district,” said Siobhan Leavy, director of special education for Reading School District. “Being an urban center, our needs are that much greater.”

For those who choose to stay in Reading and teach special education, Leavy said, the first couple of years may be a “shock to the system.” Urban environments such as Reading face numerous problems, such as homelessness and food insecurity, that may be unsettling to newcomers. Nonetheless, she added, the vocational aspect of serving underprivileged children offers many rewards.

“You get to be part of something that is so important in society,” Leavy said. “We want to create a world where the teachers are going to the students who need the most help."