Article by Megan Tomasic
Before bedtime last school year, Melissa Skiffen sat with her son and showed him a picture of the new teacher assistant in his classroom to make him more comfortable with the person who would help him throughout the next day.
Her son, who has Down Syndrome and autism, often struggles to understand why the same people aren’t always in his classroom. So Ms. Skiffen takes extra steps like finding photographs and having conversations with her son to make changes easier.
That became vital last year when a paraprofessional — an aide that helps teachers in the classroom — her son had worked with for years left the Penn-Trafford School District. A second left two months into the school year. A third paraprofessional was hired three weeks later and has been with him since. In between, various school staffers floated into the classroom to help her child.
“It was hard for my son, it was hard for me personally as a parent because I didn’t know who was with him,” Ms. Skiffen said. “I didn’t know how he was going to handle all of those changes all at once. It provides me comfort and peace knowing the person that is with him all day, everyday.”
The high turnover rates that hit Ms. Skiffen and her son are only a glimpse into what students and their families have been grappling with for years.
Pennsylvania school districts, including many in the Pittsburgh area, have not only been struggling with a shortage of support staff — with districts such as Sto-Rox reporting in December that 80% of vacancies were from paraprofessionals. They’re also confronting a rapidly declining number of special education teaching certifications being issued.
That’s made special education seem like one of the hardest hit areas of the state’s school system.
“Anytime you don’t have a certified teacher or someone that’s been specifically trained on how to develop the skills of students, there’s going to be a concern that the students aren’t getting the needs that they need to academically succeed. It’s a problem,” said Sherri Smith, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated problems schools have faced for years, especially as paraprofessionals were laid off when schools moved to online learning. When schools reopened, many paraprofessionals decided not to return to classrooms, said Nancy Murray, senior vice president at Achieva, an advocacy group for people with disabilities that has locations in Pittsburgh and Westmoreland County.
Schools are now having a difficult time finding people to fill those positions, which are often part-time with low salaries. In 2021, the average median pay for teaching assistants hovered around $29,360, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Over the past decade, the number of new teachers in Pennsylvania has been significantly decreasing. Special education has been especially hit hard.
Certifications issued for in-state special education dropped 56.4% from 2010-11 to 2020-21.
(Chart: James Hilston/Post-Gazette Source: Pennsylvania Department of Education Get the data Created with Datawrapper)
Meanwhile, the number of special education teaching certifications issued in Pennsylvania has been decreasing for most of the past decade.
“There is a tremendous amount of high turnover for special education teachers,” Ms. Smith said. “They have a whole lot more challenges of behaviors and concerns in the classrooms that they need to manage. There’s a tremendous amount of paperwork. It’s a stressful type of job.”
In 2010-11, Pennsylvania issued almost 2,600 new in-state special education teaching certificates for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.
But those numbers took a hit in 2013, when the state required college students pursuing special education training to receive a dual certification to “provide highly qualified status to special education teachers,” according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education website.
That meant teachers-to-be had to choose between a certificate in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, or one in seventh through 12th grade. They then had to decide on a second certificate related to education that would “permit special education teachers to provide supports and assist other teachers in regular classroom settings,” the department’s website says.
By the 2013-14 school year, almost 1,500 new in-state special education certificates for pre-k through eighth grade were issued, while more than 100 seventh through 12th grade certificates were given out, state records show. Taken together, about 1,600 special education certifications were issued that year, a drop of almost 1,000 from 2010-11.
During the 2020-21 school year, the numbers continued to decline, with about 1,000 pre-k through eighth grade certifications issued, and almost 120 for seventh through 12th grade.
The state is now working to reverse that trend. Last year, the education department rolled back the changes made in 2013, meaning college students are now able to receive a certificate for pre-k through 12th grade. Dual certification is no longer required.
“Pennsylvania, like all other states, is experiencing a decline in the number of new educators entering the profession and increasing number of current educators leaving the profession and retiring, including special education,” said Kristin Edwards, spokeswoman for the state’s education department. “As a result, schools are facing a harder time filling critical staff positions than ever before. These staffing shortages are felt most acutely by schools serving the highest proportions of low-income students and students of color — the children bearing the brunt of our inequitable educational system, its policies, and practices.”
Kristina Terrell, whose son Joshua is a first grader at Pittsburgh Public’s Linden in Point Breeze, has seen firsthand how a lack of paraprofessionals, social workers and substitutes impacted her son this year.
Joshua, who has oppositional defiant disorder and ADHD, often struggles with authority, staying on task and remaining in assigned spaces like classrooms. Behavioral issues often worsen when her son is attending classes that aren’t with his primary teacher. When those behaviors occur, the nurse will occasionally intervene and use her office as a cool-down space.
But his mother said Joshua’s behavioral and academic needs aren’t being met in that space because the nurse isn’t equipped like support staff would be.
Ms. Terrell is considering sending him to another school, “which I don’t think is the answer.” She worries, however, that once Joshua reaches fifth grade he could be punished for “behaviors that could be curbed now.”
School districts have continued to post open support staff positions. That includes Penn Hills, which in the beginning of January had 13 openings for teacher aides, Superintendent Nancy Hines said.
While the district doesn’t currently have any openings for special education teachers, “the number of teacher candidates are shrinking in general,” said Robert Kollar, the district’s director of human resources. A shrinking pool of candidates reflects fewer teacher certifications being issued across the state.
Wilkinsburg Superintendent Joe Maluchnick agreed, noting that the district sees “fewer applicants across the board.”
Megan Van Fossan, superintendent at Sto-Rox, said it’s not surprising that districts are facing a smaller recruiting pool. She noted that the number of certified staff has decreased so much that Pennsylvania began issuing more emergency permits — people with a bachelor’s degree can become certified to temporarily fill open teaching positions — than teaching certifications.
“Pennsylvania has known this was going to happen,” Ms. Van Fossan said. “To be honest, it’s quite frustrating sitting out here in the field when we saw the train coming down the tracks and now we’re all surprised that we have vacancies that are hard to fill.”
Because Sto-Rox is a financially-strapped district, officials often struggle to offer salaries that are competitive with neighboring districts like Upper St. Clair and Mt. Lebanon. In Sto-Rox, more than 90% of the 1,100 students are deemed economically disadvantaged.
“If I’m sitting in Mt. Lebanon or Upper St. Clair as the superintendent, I can increase the taxes but they already had amazing supports and services for their kids,” Ms. Van Fossan said. “They already have well established special education programs, they have very generous teaching contracts… I can’t have a collective bargaining agreement that’s paying teachers like the school districts around me.”
She noted that when there are vacancies, the district will emergency certify teachers when possible.
That’s a tactic being used by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which is pursuing emergency certifications to give districts some temporary relief, executive director Robert Scherrer said.
“How do you get people emergency certified but then make sure that you’re providing them with the appropriate training so that they can do that job well?” Mr. Scherrer asked. “That’s sort of the near-term solution that a lot of folks are looking at, but we’re trying to see how we can look at this five, 10 years down the road as well.”
As schools work through ongoing staffing issues, parents — many of whom are left feeling frustrated and concerned over whether their children will have a teacher or support staff — realize districts are doing the best they can.
“I do support and appreciate the staff,” Ms. Terrell said. “They all are doing as much as they can but I feel the district should do just as much to hire additional support staff and providers as they’re eager to hire appropriate and skilled teachers.”
Ms. Skiffen, of Penn-Trafford, agreed.
“Change happens in the uncomfortable spaces and we need to have the hard conversations about what is best for our students and we need to make sure we’re supporting all students and also need to make sure we’re supporting all staff,” Ms. Skiffen said. “Everyone needs to feel valued and be supported.”