Teaching qualifications

Eanes ISD tackles staffing issues and aims to be more inclusive for special education

In the wake of continued nationwide staffing shortages, Eanes ISD has continued to expand its support for special education students through voluntary initiatives for all abilities and talent recruitment, said the EISD’s director of special education, Matthew Zemo.

“We are no different from other school districts across the country; however, I think there is a point of pride for us, our team and the work we have done,” said Zemo. “We are sitting in a very lucky space where we only have a few teaching positions left to fill.”

EISD lost 100 teachers throughout the 2021-22 school year, a 14% increase since 2018-19, according to a district report. Of these 100 teachers, 29 were specialist teachers. There were also additional vacancies not counted in these figures for unfilled positions.

After a steady stream of talent searches since January, the special education department had filled about 39 of its vacancies as of Aug. 8, Zemo said. There are still openings for teaching assistant positions, which are harder to fill due to the $15 to $20 per hour pay rate.

To complement this problem, the district has launched a new program allowing teaching assistants with bachelor’s degrees to work in school while pursuing their teaching certification. This program will also financially support these individuals in these academic endeavors, which district leaders hope will encourage more people to apply, Zemo said.

“We were able to move and support some of those vacancies with other professionals that we were able to bring in. That was our biggest issue last year,” Zemo said. “At the start of the school year, we’re sitting in a pretty good space.”

Special education students may have visible disabilities, such as Down syndrome, or invisible disabilities, such as dyslexia or autism, school board chairman John Havenstrite said. There are about 780 students served by the special education department, including students with learning disabilities, mental disorders or other disabilities affecting them, Zemo said.

To be considered a special education student, the disability must have a significant impact on at least one area of ​​a student’s life, such as breathing, moving, speaking or learning, said Molly May, assistant superintendent of the program, of teaching and assessment. Students may receive special education services without being officially part of the program because they do not meet these qualifications.

“You might have a student with significant anxiety who needs instruction in executive functioning and needs counseling as a related service, and that student would be served under [special education]compared to a student who has anxiety and needs a little more time for a test,” May said.

Meeting the needs of understaffed students presented challenges for the district in 2021-22, but with several positions now filled, Zemo said he looks forward to the new school year.

All-inclusive activities

In an effort to be more inclusive, the district has also taken an active approach to making complementary co-curricular and extracurricular activities available to all students, Havenstrite said.

“We are working to create more opportunities for our physically and intellectually disadvantaged students on the co-curricular and co-curricular side so that they can begin to participate in all the things that are available to the general [education] students in those fields as well,” Havenstrite said.

Some activities have already seen this integration into unified spaces, such as the Westlake Spirit team and more recently the Westlake Unified Softball team. Additional extracurricular activities, such as choir and drama, don’t carry the “unified” label, but have long been places of inclusion for special education students, Zemo said.

The district also participates in the Best Buddies program, which pairs a student with a disability with a student without a disability to foster inclusion. There has also been talk of including this curriculum at the elementary level, Zemo said.

EISD is also a Unified Champion District, which is a title given to all districts that participate in the Special Olympics. These sporting events give students with mental and physical disabilities the opportunity to compete in several sports locally, nationally and internationally. But to support all EISD students in the district, programs need to be expanded, Havenstrite said.

Full integration of all co-curricular and co-curricular activities at EISD is going to be a long process, Havenstrite said. However, getting accommodations into the district’s activity catalog is key to being inclusive, he said.

“It’s an area I’m passionate about,” Havenstrite said. “For a long time, our [special education] students haven’t really had access to the full experience of being a Westlake High School student. We are now breaking down these barriers and opening up opportunities.

Identify students in special education

Child Find is a process established by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to identify students with disabilities, regardless of severity. A parent, doctor, teacher, relative, or friend can begin the child-finding process, which searches for the following:

  • Learning or intellectual disability
  • Orthopedic, auditory, visual, speech or other impairment
  • emotional disturbance
  • Autism
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Deafness/blindness