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Published in Print: March 24, 1999, as Burgeoning Nevada District Concentrates on 'Growing' Its Own

Burgeoning Nevada District Concentrates on 'Growing' Its Own

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As part of their routine hiring practices, Clark County, Nev., school officials scour colleges across the country and use innovative technology to try to recruit enough teachers to fill classrooms in the fast-growing district.

But knowing there just weren't enough special educators to be found, George Ann Rice turned to the school system's special education classes themselves.

"We found we really need to grow our own, in addition to looking outside the district," said Ms. Rice, the assistant superintendent for personnel for the Las Vegas-area district, the nation's 9th largest.

In those classrooms, she found 30 paraprofessionals, long-term substitutes, and parents of students with disabilities--all of whom were already familiar with special education and the challenges it poses--who wanted to become teachers. She began working with professors at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the state's main teacher-training college, to create a curriculum that would put them on a fast track to a special education degree.

Paying Salaries

Clark County's creation is an alternative program that educators believe to be one of a kind.

Using money initially allotted for 65 special education positions that the schools couldn't fill this year, the district is paying full-time salaries and benefits for the 30 aspiring teachers while they attend classes nine hours a day at the nearby UNLV campus.

By "breaking virtually every rule within the university structure," said Thomas B. Pierce, the chairman of UNLV's special education department, professors at his school and Ms. Rice set up an experimental program that aims to give the students a bachelor's degree and certification as special education teachers in one year.

Credit Hours Trebled

The curriculum is daunting. For the first semester, the students took 46 credit hours, instead of the typical 15. Each class lasted one week, running daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and built on the content of the previous classes.

After class, the students studied or wrote their research papers, meaning a routine day could easily last 16 hours.

During this, the second semester, the students are taking 17 credit hours of classes, and they must complete a pre-student-teaching assignment. Come summer, they will be expected to complete their student-teaching requirement in the county's year-round schools.

"They are not in a watered-down program," Ms. Rice said. "We made it clear: You have to perform."

Before applying to the program, students had to have completed all core coursework-- 60 hours with a 2.5 grade point average--for an education degree. The prospective teachers pick up the tab for their tuition at UNLV, about $10,000, and agree to teach special education in Clark County for five years. All must have a good employment record and undergo intensive interviews with university and district staff members.

The advantage of "growing your own" is that the teachers are likely to stay in the district, Ms. Rice said. Many in the UNLV program are Las Vegas natives or have settled in its desert climate long-term with their families. Furthermore, by recruiting special education personnel who know the demands of the job, they are more likely to stay in special education jobs, Ms. Rice added.

"Research told us, if you want a teacher that won't leave you, look at aides and long-term substitutes," said Kyle Higgins, an associate professor of special education at unlv who helped design the program's curriculum. The university faculty and Ms. Rice built the program from scratch, Ms. Higgins said, because they found no similar programs to replicate.

Knowing What It Takes

So far, the one-year experiment has worked even better than its creators had hoped. No student has dropped out, and very few have missed classes. The average GPA is 3.86 out of a possible 4.0.

The students, who range in age from their late 20s to early 50s, all have a persistence and maturity often found lacking in traditional college students, Ms. Higgins said. In addition, they have the advantage of already being acquainted with special education terminology and practices.

The teacher-candidates themselves say they are well aware of the requirements of the job--and have the patience, motivation, and desire to teach special education students.

"We have been in the classroom, and we've seen the upside and the downside," said Terri Buhecker, who was a substitute teacher for nine years.

Added her classmate, Nicole Dobbins, who was a substitute teacher, "Far too many people are held up on the paperwork of the job, but we have gotten beyond that."

Many of those in the program are within reach of realizing their longtime goal of becoming a teacher, one they wondered if they would ever achieve because of time or financial constraints.

About half the class is made up of Hispanic, African-American, or male students--diversity rarely seen at the front of special education classrooms, even though a disproportionate number of students with disabilities are male and are from minority groups.

"We are getting seven bilingual special education teachers. They are impossible to find," a beaming Ms. Rice said.

Taking Risks

Clark County has been struggling to keep up with the pace of its student enrollment at nearly all levels. Enrollment has leapt from 95,000 in 1985-86 to 210,000 this year, and is projected to grow to 285,000 students by the 2004-05 school year.

Meanwhile, this year alone the district hired a total of 1,900 teachers, and expects to hire 2,500 more for next year. Among this year's new recruits were 280 special education teachers.

While the extreme teacher shortage in general is further complicated by pending teacher and principal retirements, the need has also presented an opportunity to be innovative, Ms. Rice said.

In addition to the UNLV program, Clark County has worked with the local community college system to create evening and weekend special education classes whose credits can transfer to UNLV. The district had set aside $30,000 to pay for classes for any staff member who wanted to pursue a teaching degree. That fund was quickly depleted.

Clark County administrators are also drafting plans for alternative-certification routes and other recruiting tactics to bolster their special education ranks.

But "there isn't a shortage of teacher-candidates, there's a shortage of programs that meet the needs of teacher-candidates," Ms. Rice asserted. For example, navigating the state certification and university bureaucracies was an arduous process that could make similar programs hard to implement in other fast-growing districts, she said.

UNLV faculty members, too, were skeptical about the quality of the accelerated program when first presented with its blueprint, said Teresa S. Jordan, the interim dean of the UNLV college of education.

"It made me very nervous," she said. "But I also realized that if we're going to solve these problems, and care about quality, we're going to have to take some risks and look at innovative ways of doing things."

Now, the district and UNLV have begun planning for a second class of prospective special education teachers, and they hope it will be the last one needed to quench the district's needs.

"It really has turned out better than I expected," Ms. Jordan said. "It's a very viable program."

A more resounding endorsement comes from Linda Lewis, a student and the mother of two children with disabilities. "I would have no qualms about any of these people teaching my kids," she said.

Vol. 18, Issue 28, Pages 14-15

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