DOE tackling shortage of special education teachers

DOE tackling shortage of special education teachers
Cindy Razga
Cindy Razga

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Cindy Razga teaches special education at Blanche Pope Elementary School. The work is time consuming, stressful and challenging. And she needs help.

"I'm in three grade levels. That means I have six teachers that I work with and a dozen kids that I'm keeping track of," she said.

Like many mainland school districts, Hawaii has a shortage of special education education. But the situation in the islands is more acute because of the state's high cost of living and because of the remote locations of many high-need schools.

"It's not just unique to Hawaii but I believe it is more difficult to address in Hawaii because of our isolation," said Department of Education assistant Superintendent Suzanne Mulcahy.

The state has about 100 SPED teacher openings. It's been as high as double that number. Teachers leave because of the workload or other stressors and it's tough to recruit and retain new ones.

To temporarily fill special ed vacancies, the DOE uses emergency hires or other teachers who don't have special education backgrounds.

Corey Rosenlee, president of Hawaii's teachers union, said the state needs to do more to address the situation.

"We have to ask ourselves, 'Is this acceptable? Is it acceptable that we've run out of teachers?' And the answer is no," Rosenlee said.

Mulcahy said teachers who don't have a special education background can struggle in special education classrooms.

She said the department is looking for trained teachers at universities, and the DOE is searching for an agency that can help with hiring.

"So that if we are unable to fill them with our own recruiting trips they would be able to send qualified licensed teachers to fill in those gaps," she said.

Razga, of Pope Elementary, has been a SPED teacher for 29 years.

"It would be ideal if we could have more personnel in the classroom with the kids. That would really help," she said.

Unlike other states, special education teachers in Hawaii don't get paid more than other teachers.

Rosenlee said the union wants to increase salaries for all teachers. HSTA's present contract runs through 2017.

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