Minneapolis, St. Paul and Anoka-Hennepin are among the many districts reporting special education staffing issues.
MINNEAPOLIS — Jodi Rebuffoni’s son, who has Down syndrome, was in fifth grade at Kenny Community School in southwest Minneapolis this year.
But he hasn’t spent much time in the building yet.
“My son has been out of school most of the year because there is no special education staff at his school,” Rebuffoni said. “There is no teacher and there have been sporadic special education support staff in the classroom so most of the time we can’t really bring him with us.”
Rebuffoni learned Tuesday afternoon that Minneapolis Public Schools will have a permanent special education teacher in Kenny starting next week, with hopefully more auxiliaries to follow in the near future. The district previously told KARE 11 that students with disabilities will continue to be encouraged to attend school in Kenny and that some families have been given the opportunity to transfer while MPS works to “find a long-term solution for families and students.” who are affected by the staffing shortage.”
“They don’t deny that he can be in school,” Rebuffoni said, “but as a parent he doesn’t study.”
However, the problem of staff shortages in special education is not unique to Kenny Community School or Minneapolis Public Schools. Saint Paul Public Schools, for example, is currently reporting 22 special school openings, up from 42 at the start of the year.
In Anoka-Hennepin, a spokesperson said that “there are two main high-demand positions in special education – teacher and para-educator. Both are in short supply as demand for special education grows.” The district, which employs 7,000 people, reported 313 special education vacancies earlier in the year, including 52 vacancies for special education educators and 76 vacancies for paraeducators.
It’s the same story across the country.
According to various reports, 49 out of 50 states have reported shortages of special education staff over the past decade. A recent survey for the 2022-23 school year also showed that 53 percent of public schools felt understaffed, with special education being the top concern.
“The problem of recruiting and retaining qualified special education teachers is not new in the pandemic,” said Laura Stelitano, research manager for the Center for Learner Equity. “Special education is consistently one of the most difficult areas to fill.”
Stelitano and the Center for Learner Equity issued a report this fall that found that “dependency on underqualified teachers — particularly for special education positions — may be increasing.” In general, the report showed that students with disabilities were disproportionately affected by the pandemic in the 2021-22 school year, with staffing issues being just one component of the problem.
“Whenever there is a teacher shortage, districts and schools may need to hire underqualified teachers or teachers who are emergency certified or not fully certified in the area they need to teach,” Stelitano said. “This is a real problem for children with disabilities who need this special training and understanding from their teachers.”
The question is what can you do?
Stelitano suggested districts improve working conditions for teachers, such as allowing more time to plan to hire and retain them.
“Just more support in the workplace,” Stelitano said, “at a time when teaching is already very tough.”
As a parent of Minneapolis Public Schools, Jodi Rebuffoni called on lawmakers to increase funding for special education, noting the huge surplus Minnesota is currently spending.
She is also awaiting a formal response from the district after filing a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Education alleging that MPS failed to provide her son with adequate special education staffing as required by federal law.
“I really hope,” Rebuffoni said, “that sheds light on a really significant issue.”
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