New certificate program aims to reduce Delaware’s ‘severe shortages’ of special education teachers

To help alleviate the shortage of special educators, the U.S. Dept. of Education awarded a Del. State professor a grant to develop a special education certification.

Delaware State University

Delaware State University's campus. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

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Delaware is facing a big shortage in teachers focused on special education.

According to research by Rachel Juergensen, assistant professor of special education at Delaware State University, there were 165 vacant special education teaching positions over the summer.

“The need for special education teachers in Delaware is critical, and without intervention, the severe shortages and subsequent negative impact on students with disabilities will continue to prevail,” Juergensen said.

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To help fill the gap, the U.S. Dept. of Education awarded Juergensen a $1 million grant to help solve the problem. The funding will be used to create the Delaware Special Educator Certificate, or DE-SPEC program, which will help speed the process of getting more special ed teachers into the classroom. The program will help new teachers be better prepared to work with students who have special needs and provide support for any challenges they face.

“Teachers that are in the field report very commonly that they did not receive enough preparation in how to best teach students with disabilities that they have in their classrooms,” she said.

“One of the ways to battle that is to prepare them with more coursework regarding what special education history and law looks like, what it looks like to write a really high quality individualized education program, and what it looks like to use evidence-based and research-based practices that we know work for students with disabilities,” she said.

The one-year program will include training on effective and culturally responsive instruction in special education, understanding legislation and policy, mastering behavior and classroom management, creating individualized education programs, and using database assessment to plan evidence-based instruction for students with disabilities.

Mentorship is another important component that will be tailored to each teacher’s needs.

“We want to provide mentoring for the teachers as well. So what that looks like will be individualized based on what the teacher needs and what they’re wanting and what they want to focus on,” she explains.

The program targets current teachers interested in obtaining special education certification.

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“We’re looking for teachers that are currently teaching,” she said. “But they’re interested in adding that special education certification to either just be more prepared to teach students with disabilities that they have in their general education classroom, or to be qualified and prepared to teach special education if that’s something that they choose.”

The grant funds will help more than 60 teachers pay for tuition, book expenses, and certification costs. Teachers will also get a small stipend when they complete the program.

The work to recruit the first cohort of teachers starts early next year, with the goal of having students enrolled in the program starting in the fall of 2024. “Then we’ll recruit another cohort of teachers for three years after that,” Juergensen said.

Over the span of one year, participants will engage in five eight-week online courses, providing a flexible and accessible learning experience.

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