This university’s approach to special educator shortages? Full-tuition scholarships

The University of Texas at Arlington hopes to bolster the pipeline and mitigate some of the effects caused by the pandemic that's resulted in a severe shortage of teachers in this area.

K12 schools across the country are in dire need of teachers in all subject areas, especially special education. In the hopes of lessening the pandemic’s toll in this matter, one university is doing something extraordinary: offering full-tuition scholarships to special educators.

The University of Texas at Arlington has received nearly $1.25 million in federal funds from the Office of Special Education Programs for Project R.E.A.D.Y., a grant that will award six students per year scholarships that cover nearly 100% of their in-state tuition, fees and other expenses like textbooks, daycare and housing, the university announced in a news release in February.

Ambra Green, associate professor at UTA, said the scholarship doesn’t require students to commit to teaching Texas right out of college, either. As long as they pass their particular states’ certification exams, they’re free to teach wherever.

“My hope is that it will draw more teachers to the field to become certified special education teachers and assist in closing the teacher shortage,” she says.

Training, professional development and research have gotten more complex since the pandemic, too, she adds. It’s her hope that the grant will help produce masterful teachers who are well-prepared to enter such a demanding field.

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While public schools are witnessing a shrinking pool of qualified special educators, higher education, too, is experiencing its fair share of pandemic-related impacts.

“The pandemic has impacted enrollment in colleges and universities across the nation and across all disciplines,” she explains. “Education, particularly special education, is no expectation.”

Yet, interest in the field is still there, she adds. The problem is there’s always been a stigma regarding what the job is and what it isn’t.

“The stigma and misunderstandings seem to be a consistent theme with regards to interest, rather than the pandemic.

Scott Muri, superintendent of the Ector County Independent School District in Texas, said they’ve been impacted by shortages in special education.

“Our vacancy rate is nearly 1% which is a significant improvement from the 18% vacancy rate of 2019,” he says. However, areas like special education, bilingual, math and science continue to be “critical shortage areas,” he adds.

Muri credits a variety of innovative strategies to the district’s success in lowering its teacher vacancy rate, including:

  • Redesigning the human resource department into a Human Capital Division, which focuses on three key areas: strategic compensation and staffing, pipeline development and personalized professional learning.
  • In special education, they’ve fully funded pipelines for speech therapists and diagnosticians, both of which require a master’s degree.
  • In addition to leveraging virtual teachers and professionals in a variety of subject areas, they also recruit internationally which contributes to more than 10% of their teaching workforce representing 13 foreign countries.

But how can other district leaders best provide support to keep special educators in the profession longer? According to Green, they need as much help as they can get.

“Education leaders can support, recruit and retain special education teachers by encouraging and providing time and financial support for training and professional development and continuing education related to classroom management and academic instruction, advocating for legislation that mandates the hiring of certified teachers who have gone through a rigorous educator preparation program and increasing special education teacher pay and/or stipends,” she argues.

Micah Ward
Micah Ward
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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