When the Hillsborough County school district has to fill a social sciences teaching position, as many as 50 to 100 applicants might be beating down the doors for the job.
But dangle a special-education teaching position in the job market and the district is lucky to get one or two applicants.
Such is the way of life when it comes to filling the toughest teaching slots in the school district.
“The numbers just aren’t there,” said Jim Goode, a teacher recruiter for Hillsborough County’s district, the nation’s eighth-largest. “You are lucky to get one applicant for ESE these days.”
Teaching special-needs children with a variety of disabilities is a tough job not meant for everyone, those in educational circles agree. There’s more paperwork, more stress, more demands. But no extra pay.
And the state Department of Education has made it even harder for prospective teachers to get into an ESE classroom, Goode and others believe.
In years past, teachers who wanted to be in special education needed only to pass a blanket ESE certification, Goode said. Now, however, teachers who want to be in middle or high school classes also have to pass subject-area tests as well.
That’s taxing not just on the mind but also the pocketbook, the Hillsborough teacher recruiter said.
An ESE teacher today might have to pass as many as four subject-area tests at a cost of $200 apiece. Add to that cost study guides at $40 to $50 a pop and the toll escalates quickly, Goode explained.
“That’s insane,” he said.
Hillsborough County schools are battling the ESE teacher shortage as the department continues an overhaul and an internal district probe.
It’s still looking for an ESE director after Joyce Wieland transferred to another job late last year after two student deaths in less than 10 months.
Isabella Herrera, a student at Sessums Elementary, died in January a day after a ride home from school on a bus when neither the driver nor aide called 911 after she had trouble breathing. Jenny Caballero drowned in October after walking away from a gym class at Rodgers Middle School.
The deaths triggered a review of the ESE department which found a lack of qualified and trained aides and attendants in classrooms and on buses. The district struggles to find teachers for the classroom as well.
Of the approximately 100 teacher openings in Hillsborough County, more than half are ESE.
“That’s a big hole,” Goode said.
It’s a constant hole that exists not just in Hillsborough but elsewhere across the Tampa Bay area and the state.
In Pinellas County, all categories of ESE teachers are in high demand, said Melanie Marquez Parra, spokeswoman for the school district. That is especially true at the secondary level, she added.
It takes a unique teacher to teach the kinds of special-needs students often found in today’s classrooms.
“It takes a special person who wants to be able to teach ESE students,” said Loriann Hernandez, who works in the teacher certification section for Hillsborough schools. “Not everyone wants to teach ESE.”
Mark Kamleiter, a St. Petersburg attorney who frequently represents the parents of special-needs students across the Tampa Bay area, agrees.
“You really need your best teachers in those positions,” Kamleiter said.
He believes that Hillsborough and other districts should hire more aides and attendants to help out overburdened teachers.
“All of those things cost money, however,” Kamleiter said. “But maybe they could reduce some of the class load, give more support in the classrooms.
“They need to be properly supported so they don’t burn out.”