State gets grant for special ed training

DOVER — Over the past seven years the state’s public school enrollment has increased by about 8,800 pupils. At the same time, the number of students with disabilities has climbed from around 17,200 to nearly 22,500.

That discrepancy, one state officials have been grappling with for several years now, illustrates why education officials are so excited about a recent grant.

The Department of Education announced Monday it has been awarded a federal grant worth close to $1 million. That money will allow the state, in partnership with the University of Delaware, to unveil a certification program for special education administrators.

“It means that we will have very highly qualified leaders within our school system to support children with disabilities and their families,” said MaryAnn Mieczkowski, the director of the agency’s Exceptional Children’s Resources unit.

According to the Department of Education, there’s a national shortage of qualified special education administrators, and Delaware is no exception. Although state law notes teachers can earn a certificate for special ed, there’s currently no such program here — educators can only earn the certificate by taking at least 30 graduate-level credits in special education.

Each of the state’s 19 school districts has a special education director, but only eight of those individuals have certificates. And with turnover of around 20 percent, having a large pool of potential hires is big.

Traditionally, individuals have gone from working in school administration to district administration, but officials believe there’s a benefit to expanding the “pipeline.”

“As the role becomes more complex in areas of curriculum instruction and especially special education, we know the skillset needs to be developed differently,” Michael Saylor, the department’s education associate for school leadership, said.

Over the next five years, the state hopes to train 55 individuals. Each participant will spend 18 months working toward the certificate by taking four courses, interning and creating a research project.

The internships will be broadly focused on improving outcomes at schools, although the exact nature will vary based on the school and the participant.

Those taking part must spend 240 hours in an internship, including about 10 to 40 hours at the Department of Education, and the rest at their schools. They may dig into data or work to find a way to improve student behavior.

Applicants, who will be chosen in the spring, will be selected after a thorough screening process that includes an interview, letters of recommendation and a written test.

“Since this press release went out to those educators, it’s had the biggest response of anything that we’ve pushed out to the field in the past, so interest is very high,” Mr. Saylor said.

The training process is intended for those already employed in the education field in Delaware, particularly educators with advanced degrees looking to work on the administrative side. The grant won’t just benefit current or future special education directors but also those in general administration, like principals, Mr. Saylor said.

The state will work with the University of Delaware to develop and evaluate the program.

Hopefully, officials say, the new certificate will enable Delaware to better respond to the needs of its growing population of pupils with disabilities — a concern of great importance given the percentage of Delaware students in special education programs, which was between 12 and 12.5 percent every year from 2004 to 2011, has risen to 16.2 percent this year, according to state data.

“If we can have special education directors that are ready on day one, it’s going to lead to better programs for our students that sometimes have the greatest challenges,” Ms. Mieczkowski said.

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