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Howard County special education teachers warn they and the system are reaching a breaking point

At a Howard County Board of Education meeting Nov. 7, four special education staff members sounded an alarm, warning that special educators in public schools are reaching a breaking point because of understaffing and underfunding by the county.

At times with tears in their eyes, the special education staff members gave accounts of what they face each day, saying they spend most of their time running from one student crisis to the next.

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“I’m a crisis interventionist all day; that’s really all I do. The days I actually just teach are far and in between,” said Lauren Williams, a fourth-year special education teacher at Guilford Elementary School in Columbia, in a December interview.

“I started tracking the amount of [special education] service hours missed when a crisis happens and just today I counted 163 minutes missed.”

Nearly 10% of Howard students — or 5,728 out of the overall 58,000 — were identified as special education students in the 2018-19 academic year, according to state education census data. The figure represents students 3 to 21 years old.

During the November meeting, the Howard County Education Association called “the board into the realities that our educators and our students face in the underfunded special education budget,” said Colleen Morris, the union’s president.

In last year’s operating budget, Howard schools Superintendent Michael Martirano recommended $120.5 million for special education, looking to add nearly 150 special education positions across the school system. The positions included teachers, paraeducators, occupational therapists and speech pathologists.

The school board, however, did not add the positions and trimmed the sought funding for special education to $115 million.

“I agree with the staff who spoke at the Board of Education meeting that we need to invest more resources in order to fully take care of our children,” Martirano said in a statement Dec. 13.

Martirano will present his operating budget for fiscal 2021 year Jan. 9 at the school system’s headquarters in Ellicott City. Originally scheduled for Dec. 17, the presentation was pushed back because of competing priorities, according to a county schools news release.

Sylvia Hennessie, a kindergarten instructional team leader at Guilford Elementary and the 2019 county Teacher of the Year, said she feels “defeated.”

“From the general [education] side, I am defeated,” Hennessie said in an interview. “My mental health has never been as bad as it is this year. This year has been very, very difficult. Morale is not great.”

“Because of caring too much, I take home everything” to a young family, with her 4-year-old and 7-year-old daughters, said Hennessie, adding she’s in therapy and on medication.

Staffing is ‘unpredictable’

In Karen Filippelli’s 17 years at Oakland Mills High School in Columbia, she has seen the rise of students requiring special education services.

“At the high school level, the needs keep getting greater and the staff does not [grow],” said Filippelli, a special education paraeducator. She also testified before the board Nov. 7.

More staffing is needed, she said, to help deal with student behaviors and the low skills that students are walking into the front door with, including reading at a sixth-grade level and lacking math skills.

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This year, Filippelli is in general education classrooms supporting anywhere from two to eight students in each class. She is in 11th grade English classes, career research and developmental classes, and two tutorial periods — an elective class for students with Individualized Education Programs, where they receive additional academic support to finish papers, exams and long-term projects.

Howard County’s special education department oversees all students with an IEP, which are for children who require specialized instruction. The department does not handle 504 Plans for students with eligible disabilities requiring accommodations to further their general education instruction.

The school system’s special education department has a staff of nearly 60, including program heads, instructional facilitators, intervention specialists, behavior specialists, behavior analysts, speech language pathologists and resource teachers, according to the system’s organizational chart.

In school buildings, there are special education teachers and team leaders, paraeducators, student assistants and temporary employees.

Special education “staffing is unpredictable,” said Terri Savage, the county’s executive director of special education. “You could inherit more students each week with needs.”

Oakland Mills did not lose any staffing this year, according to Filippelli; however, she said, “We have a continuing door of admissions all year long. We don’t start and end with the same number [of special education students] and the number is increasing but the staff is not.”

Howard’s special education staffing is allocated based on the number of service hours a given school is providing to Individualized Education Program students. Paraeducators are assigned based on service hours, while student assistants are assigned if a school has more children with medical and behavior-intensive needs. Temporary employees are assigned when children require closer attention and there are staffing gaps in the daily schedule requiring additional support.

Of Williams’ 18 students, seven have “severely impacting aggressive physical behaviors.” In her classroom, she had three support staff members, a special education paraeducator, a student assistant and a temporary employee. She said it’s not enough.

“I love my job, but doing this job long-term seems frankly impossible,” she said in an interview.

Williams said she receives therapy and is on medication to cope with stressors stemming from her job.

Gabrielle Jacobson, a special education instructional team leader at Hammond Middle School in Columbia, said the lack of staffing is not only a result of cut positions, but also a lack of substitutes, causing teachers and even guidance counselors to pitch in whenever they can. For most teachers, it’s during planning periods.

At Hammond Middle, there’s not enough training, people, support or time in a day, she added.

Hammond Middle’s psychologist is in the school three days a week and, while there are two guidance counselors, they assist with class coverage and so when crises happen in a classroom, it falls onto the teachers and support staff in the room.

“I think because we are not psychologists, it gets to be really frustrating we cannot provide the depth of support a child needs to get them back in the classroom,” Jacobson said.

Hennessie said this school year is one of the first that the impact of staff reductions is evident.

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Guilford is sharing a paraeducator between grades because of a reduction in staffing. In kindergarten, paraeducators are serving specific children daily instead of supporting all students, Hennessie said.

There are three full-day kindergarten classrooms at Guilford, with special education students in two of the rooms and significant behavioral problems in all three, Hennessie said.

“I’m not feeling set up for success," Hennessie said, "but more frustrating to me is that ... our special educators and special education team is not being set up for success, and it’s just a vicious cycle. We are going to lose [staff]. We are losing a lot of people in special education because they are not being set up for success.”

‘A common thread’: Lack of trained staff

School board member Vicky Cutroneo visited several schools, shadowing special education educators, after the teachers who spoke at the board meeting invited school board members into their schools.

“Each school is different, but the common thread is there’s not enough trained support in the classroom, whether it’s lack of staff or lack of trained staff. That is the commonality between the schools,” Cutroneo said.

“We cut a lot of support last year [in the budget]. We cannot dilute the classroom support anymore.”

In the fiscal 2020 operating budget, 74 general education paraeducator positions across elementary and middle school levels were cut. In the past, general education paraeducators have assisted with gaps in special education support; however, that is not happening this year, according to Morris, the teachers union president.

The school system provides ongoing professional learning, including after-school sessions, continuing professional development classes and free services through the state education department and Towson University, according to Savage.

Last year, a mandatory session focused on supporting students with behavioral needs was held for all of the system’s special education staff. A similar training was replicated in September.

At Hammond Middle, there is no common planning time for the special education team to meet the way there is for teachers focused on subjects such as science, math and English, Jacobson said. As a result, general education teachers and co-special education teachers cannot plan lessons together.

With temporary employees, Jacobson can only train them for about six hours a school year. These contracted employees usually come with no special education training and are placed with the neediest students because of demand, she said.

What’s next?

“In an ideal world, we would get trained positions back,” said Hennessie, the county Teacher of the Year.

“Realistically I’m hoping the awareness will spark change in our community to help [the school system] live up to its reputation,” she said.

Williams would like to see more parents become aware of the daily struggles special education educators face, whether or not they have a child with a disability.

William Barnes, the school system’s chief academic officer, said in a Dec. 9 statement, ”We will once again be advancing a budget that provides the support, including additional staff, that each child needs and deserves.”

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