A Graduate School of Education and Human Development program starting this summer will position graduate students for employment as instructional assistants in Alexandria City Public Schools before becoming full-time special education teachers next year.
Officials said in a release last month that GSEHD will accept 10 to 12 graduate applicants in early March who will enroll in a master’s special education program in June that will prepare them to work as instructional assistants in ACPS starting in August. Faculty leading the partnership said students can be hired to full-time special education teacher positions during their second year of the program, which will help combat low teacher recruitment and retention.
The Alexandria City Public Schools has been facing recruitment challenges with fewer applicants, especially in hard-to-fill positions like special education teachers, according to an October presentation to the school board. Officials said this program will help combat low special education teacher retention, providing students with paid professional experience and an $800 tuition stipend per semester.
Margaret Browne, the ACPS director of talent recruitment and retention, said students in the program will begin coursework through GSEHD this summer, like Foundations in Special Education, Career Development and Transition, which explores career development techniques within the context of widespread social and political change.
“It’s really magical about the program is not only are they getting coursework through GW and learning about pedagogical strategies and approaches, they’re also in a classroom working with students to really see how the curriculum works,” she said.
About 45 percent of public schools reported vacancies for special education teachers in 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Fifteen percent of K-12 students required specialized education instruction in the 2021-22 academic year, according to federal data.
Browne said ACPS has started reevaluating compensation for teachers and designing initiatives to promote mental health awareness and wellness programs among employees to combat low teacher retention. Low rates of teacher retention can destabilize relationships between teachers and students and deflate student achievement as courses are often canceled or taught by underprepared stand-ins, according to the Learning Policy Institute.
ACPS Work Life and Wellness Program, which is designed to provide access to wellness resources, inaugurated a monthly wellness newsletter promoting events like nature walks in Winkler Botanical Preserve and encouraging employees to take an “active role” in their wellness.
Teachers with a master’s degree earn a minimum of $57,725 annually – $7,156 more than those solely with a bachelor’s degree, according to ACPS salary records.
“It really is just finding ways to let all of our educators, teachers included, know that we value them, and we value their time,” Browne said
Browne said students will apply pedagogical skills they learn in their GSEHD classes to ACPS classrooms, where professional special education teachers will mentor them through firsthand classroom experience.
“They will be getting coursework through GW and learning about pedagogical strategies and approaches, but also in a classroom, working with students to see how the curriculum works and working alongside a talented and dedicated special education teacher in ACPS,” Browne said.
Beth Tuckwiller, the department chair of special education and disability studies at GSEHD, said the program will provide students with a full-time teaching contract with ACPS upon its completion to remove barriers to employment.
Recruitment and retention challenges at ACPS are part of a trend plaguing K-12 schools across the country since teachers started quitting their jobs due to pandemic exhaustion, low pay and the educational “culture war” between educators and states restricting speech about race, gender and sexuality in schools.
“Our experience is that many people want to be teachers, but they’re encountering barriers like cost or opportunity,” she said.
Tuckwiller said finding, supporting and developing a “diverse, equity-minded and committed” workforce will help the school district increase teacher retention through the partnership with GSEHD. She said the program seeks to select educators willing to provide children with disabilities equitable learning opportunities.
“When we think about selectivity, we’re thinking about how do we find, support and develop a workforce who is diverse, equity-minded and committed to career teaching,” she said.
Tuckwiller said GSEHD students will learn disability studies concepts, like the intersection of race and gender with disabled identities, to prepare them for employment in special education classrooms. She added that graduate students should understand the diversity student identities represented in the classroom.
“A richness of perspectives help them be culturally mindful, culturally responsive teachers who understand disability from different frames and its intersection with things like race and gender,” she said.
Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin inaugurated his time in office in January 2022 with an executive order created to prohibit teachings of critical race theory from the state’s education system, joining other state lawmakers in attacking education on issues like racism and systemic inequality.
Maxine Freund, the associate dean for research and external relations for GSEHD and a professor of special education and disability studies, said GSEHD students work and learn under a mentor during their first year in a teacher-residency model. Under this model, students gain knowledge and experience through classroom engagement alongside their coursework and work closely with ACPS employees.
Freund said students in the program will join a “committed” community of ACPS employees whose current instructional assistants’ and employees’ visions align with the curriculum GSEHD set in place.
“They’ll be in concert with the coaching, mentoring and clinical supervision that I was describing,” she said.
This article appeared in the February 6, 2023 issue of the Hatchet.