Lawrence schools benefiting from pilot program aimed at producing special education teachers

photo by: Nick Krug

Lawrence Public Schools district offices, 110 McDonald Drive.

Three years ago, Kristen May took a job as a special education paraprofessional in the Lawrence school district because the hours worked well with her daughter’s schedule.

This August, May took a big career step when she started the school year as a special education teacher at Kennedy Elementary School, although she has not yet obtained a special education teaching license. A two-year pilot program that the Kansas State Board of Education is offering to districts statewide provided May a pathway from paraprofessional to certified teacher.

The statewide shortage of licensed special education teachers prompted the Legislature to authorize the Kansas State Board of Education to start the pilot program, said Susan Helbert, assistant director of the teacher licensure and accreditation team for the KSBE. The program, which targets promising paras like May for special education positions, was introduced with the 2018-2019 school year and is available to every district in the state, she said.

Candidates for the apprenticeship program have to have at least one year of special education paraprofessional experience and a bachelor’s degree, Helbert said.

To be in the program, the paraprofessional has to be working toward obtaining a license by enrolling in six to nine hours a semester in a special education program from an accredited university, Helbert said. The person is then paired with a mentor in their district and can become a certified teacher with a semester of coursework. The paraprofessional has two years to complete the coursework required for a special education license. They remain paired with mentors through the apprenticeship period, she said.

Kevin Harrell, Lawrence school district executive director of student services and special education, said the district eagerly pursued the program when it was revealed last spring. It came at an opportune time for the district because the school board agreed last spring to place special education teachers in all elementary schools with the hiring of three additional instructors this year.

“We put the word out and had a lot of interest from paras,” he said. “We knew we had some really strong special education paraprofessionals.”

The district had six paraprofessionals accepted into the program, Harrell said. May and another para got a jump on the program by completing a semester of coursework during the summer and started the school year as certified staff rather than paraprofessionals. The other four in the program will take that step in the spring semester.

Program apprentices moving from paraprofessionals to certified staff are paid according to the district teacher salary matrix, Harrell said.

“It’s quite a step up in salary and responsibility,” he said.

May, who completed a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy in 1995, said she was thankful for the opportunity the apprentice program provided.

“I’m very excited,” she said. “I always thought about doing something like this, but there hadn’t been an opportunity. It’s a continual educational process. I continue to grow all the time.”

She and the other Lawrence school district apprentices are enrolled in an online special education licensure program offered by Fort Hays State University, May said. She can touch base with the other six Lawrence apprentices at a monthly group webinar class.

“I feel like it’s going really well,” she said. “It’s a work in progress, so there’s a lot of discussion among us about what is and isn’t working.”

The program hasn’t solved all the district’s special education teacher needs. Harrell said the district has two special education positions open, but those are for instructors in specialized classrooms for students with autism, severe behavioral problems or other needs that require experience, he said.

It does appear the apprentice program is moving the needle statewide. Helbert said as of early October, 69 paraprofessionals had been admitted into the program and another 29 applications were being processed. Those numbers will increase because more applications are being received, she said.

Helbert said another licensure change was approved to help produce more special education teachers. The KSBE is now allowing unified general elementary education and special education licenses, which will give students more flexibility when they complete studies, she said.


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