Viterbo School of Education responds to need for special education teachers

By Kasie Von Haden

Lumen Editor

The current political situation in Wisconsin has caused a great deal of concern for educators across the state. In particular, Viterbo’s School of Education has seen a decline in the master’s and licensure programs they offer.

“Our numbers are down,” Susan Hughes, director of educational research at Viterbo, told Lumen. “Though it would be difficult to say it is absolutely due to the political climate, it certainly has been tough for teachers.”

Despite the negative atmosphere for teachers in the state, Hughes puts a positive spin on it.

“We look at this as an opportunity to continue to look at our program and look for new ways to meet the needs of students and teachers,” Hughes said.

After looking at the program and what teachers may need, the School of Education formed a proposal for a cross-categorical special education teacher licensure program. The proposal, which was submitted in September of 2011, was recently accepted. The program will have its first cohort this summer.

“We’re excited because it is very likely that the first cohort will be full,” Hughes said. “That’s a really good sign.”

This licensure will allow already certified teachers to become licensed to teach students with learning disabilities and cognitive disabilities.

“There’s a high need for special education teachers in Wisconsin,” Sue Batell, dean of the School of Education, said. “Nationally, there’s a good market too.”

According to the 2012 Job Search Handbook for Educators, there is a general shortage of special educators and only 20 to 30 percent of institutions surveyed offer training in learning disabilities and cognitive disabilities. In comparison, other subject areas, like English, physical education, and social studies have a surplus of teachers and 80 to 100 percent of institutions surveyed offer training.

Jen Slusser, an adjunct education professor and employee of Onalaska High School, is excited for Viterbo’s addition of the licensure program.

“I think it’s super important to have something so close to home,” Slusser said. “It’s tough to find special education programs, so people tend to complete courses online and they aren’t trained as well as they would be with face-to-face hours.”

In addition to responding to the shortage of special education teachers in Wisconsin, Batell and Hughes agree that this licensure could add job security for teachers.

“With some budgetary cuts and class sizes increasing, some teachers may lose current jobs,” Batell said. “But, being licensed in multiple areas can add security for teachers in those positions.”

“This is a great way teachers can control how marketable they are,” Hughes said. “If teachers have a second or third license, they can do more things. If teachers only have one licensure, they may not be kept on staff. It’s awful to say, but it becomes a game of numbers; districts have a set amount of money, a set amount of students, and they have to follow laws.”

At the same time, though, Hughes knows that there are laws that will keep special education teachers in classrooms.

“Special education services are still federally mandated for students from birth to the age of 21,” she said. “These services aren’t going away.”

The licensure program is a 26-credit program, and will require participants to complete an assessment portfolio and complete a set amount of hours of student teaching. The program will have a cohort in La Crosse, and likely a second starting in Middleton, Wis., this summer.

“It’s rigorous,” Hughes said. “But we want to make sure students are getting exactly what they need.”

“Teachers are looking for ways to better themselves,” Slusser said. “This program will increase teachers’ abilities and knowledge in their classroom.”

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