POCATELLO — Pocatello education leaders are getting creative to try and better serve their special education students and pre-school children.
Tuesday night the board of trustees unanimously approved offering stipends and raising wages for these hard-to-fill positions.
Four of Pocatello’s Head Start classrooms — geared toward helping young children from low-income families prepare to succeed in school — have been unable to open their doors due to a dearth of qualified teachers. More than 30 candidates applied for five open Head Start teacher positions, but only one had the needed qualifications to be hired.
Following the board’s approval, leaders will now be offering $5,000 stipends to get teachers in those classrooms and retain current staff.
The Pocatello/Chubbuck School District also has been unable to recruit and retain enough paraprofessionals — especially in the most high-needs special education classrooms. So to fill those openings, the district discovered a way to raise the pay by supplementing it with Medicaid and federal funds.
“(This) provides us with the opportunity to train staff to be better equipped to handle (difficult) situations and meet high-demand needs in the classroom, and gives us access to a more qualified pool,” Courtney Fisher, the district spokesperson, said.
The paraprofessionals in the new positions — called habilitative skill interventionists — will need to have 32 college credits or have passed a skills test. They’ll also need to go through yearly training on managing student behavior problems. And they will make more than other paraprofessionals, earning between $15.29 and $18.50 per hour.
Janelle Harris, the interim director of special services, said the district’s special education population has grown and needs have become more significant. That’s especially true at the middle and high school levels, where Harris said hormones lead to more “explosive” student behaviors.
In those understaffed special education classrooms, teachers are having to take on more duties, leading to a “less structured learning environment” for students. On top of that, staff and students “have a greater potential for the risk of injury,” Harris wrote in a memo to Douglas Howell, the district superintendent.
The initiatives, if effective, will help open up Head Start classes for more students and provide critical assistance to special education teachers.
Other districts across the state are experiencing similar shortages of support staff.
As of Tuesday, the Boise School District’s website showed 27 paraprofessional openings. And the West Ada School District had 46 openings for special education paraprofessionals, though spokesperson Greg Wilson pointed out that those openings are spread over 58 schools. The district also has 33 openings for “overcrowded assistants” – a position created to help teachers with high class sizes.
“There’s not anything normal about what districts are experiencing right now,” Nick Smith, West Ada’s deputy superintendent, said. “The shortage of classified staff is something that everyone is grappling with.”
Smith said the district has been working on a variety of recruitment and retention strategies, such as going to job fairs, easing the application process, and offering more competitive wages and benefits.
“Every little bit counts,” he said. “Even if an effort produces one or two applications, it was worth it.”