FAIRMONT – Bethany Sturm’s day as a teacher is a little different than others who teach grades 5 through 8.
The difference is not in her curriculum or even necessarily in her instruction, but in the students she teaches who may need special assistance to understand and learn the material.
“We do the same curriculum that the other students do,” said Sturm, special educator for grades 5 through 8. “We just maybe do instruction a little different – maybe at a slower pace – but we do all of the same stuff that the other general education students are doing.”
Like her colleagues, Sturm agrees the work is rewarding. However, the department recently lost several staffers at the end of the 2018-19 school year, leaving vacancies administrators say will be difficult to fill.
“The teachers we lost were across different programmatic levels,” said Gia Deasy, administrative assistant for special services for Marion County Schools. “Our dilemma though is we don’t have a lot of special educators coming in. It’s really beyond special ed. It’s everywhere, but it really hurts special ed.”
The Marion County Board of Education approved the resignation of eight educators in the special education department at its meeting June 17. According to Deasy, these staffers left for different reasons not concerning the job duties, but more for personal reasons.
“Most of these folks were not leaving the field of special ed, they’re just going back to where they came from,” Deasy said. “We’ve had this happen to us when there were retirements, we’ve had this happen to us in the past where people have moved into general ed. This group is truly special educators who are transient and moved to other counties.”
Although the state is experiencing a shortage of educators in general, Deasy thinks the staff of the special education department will be difficult to replenish because of the specialized nature of the department.
With student needs in special education programs ranging from autism to physical disabilities, the work performed by the educators in the department can be more intensive than that of teachers in general education.
There are special education professionals at every county school and at every grade level, who either assist these students with classwork, have them for class full-time or co-teach with general education teachers.
“It’s different at every level,” said Toni Toothman, elementary liaison for the special education department. “In a resource room or a classroom at the K to 2 level, they can have six students at one time. Once they get up into grade 4, they can have eight students and in high school they can have 12 students.”
Toothman said the state regulates how many students a special education teacher can have in their case load, and the eligibility of a student to receive instruction in the special education department is up to each individual school district.
“We do the initial eligibilities for students,” said Kathern Pellegrin, Individualized Education Program specialist for Marion County Schools. “The schools have a process if they feel a student is struggling, and they send in a referral packet to us which really is database driven, and our school psychologists do some assessments and the team gets back together and makes a decision ‘Does the student have a disability?’”
Following the determination of a disability, a student will be assigned a case manager in the department who will provide educational assistance that fits what a specific student needs. This is where the specialized nature of the department factors in.
“I service students that are on the autistic spectrum as well as intellectually disabled and specific learning disability, as well as those that are labeled with a behavior disorder,” said Crystal Adkins, a K-4 special educator.
Some work in the co-teach model, where they work with general education teachers who go about teaching their regular curriculum.
“We do a co-teach model,” said Jerry Retton, a special educator for eighth grade. “There are different models you can do with the co-teach and it works out really well. There is a lot of help to accommodate the kids that need the accommodations to be successful in the classroom and that’s my job.”
Many students in special education programs participate in extra curricular activities, such as band, sports and the Special Olympics.
Despite the significant loss of teachers in the special education department in Marion County, the others in the field have hope for the future thanks to a West Virginia bill that raised the pay incentive for special education professionals to go into the field.
“Legislation did pass a pay increment for teachers that work directly with special education students,” Toothman said. “So we’re hoping that that will bring more young people to come into the special education field, because the rewards are really positive.”
The teachers all agreed that the special education students they teach are a joy to teach, and their jobs are made better thanks to them.
“My feeings about special ed, I’m able to reach these kids while I’m teaching,” said Karen Beckman, K-8 special educator. “We do have smaller class sizes, we are able to develop relationships with kids that, yes you can in general ed, but we’re more personal with them.
“You really develop a relationship not only with them but their family also.”