When Wendy de la Torre first applied for a teaching job in Loudoun County 11 years ago, she indicated that she was qualified to teach science, elementary school and students not fluent in English.
“The first thing they called me for was [English Language Learners] because there’s such a need,” she said.
After moving away and then returning to Loudoun in 2013, she again applied to teach science, elementary school and students not proficient in English.
“Again, they wanted me for ELL,” said de la Torre, who grew up in a Spanish-speaking home in Florida. “That’s how great the need is.”
Loudoun County’s 76,000-student school system is feeling the strain of the national teacher shortage. For several years running, the positions that are most needed are instructors to teach special education and students identified as English Language Learners.
On the first day of this school year, 28 classrooms were staffed with substitutes because they couldn’t find teachers to fill them. As of this week, the division is short eight ELL teachers out of 231 countywide. The number of special education vacancies in the county were not immediately available, but the Virginia Department of Education lists special education instructors as its No. 1 critical shortage area.
“The growing teacher shortage problem has caused significant hiring hardships, particularly in hard-to-fill vacancies, such as math, science, ELL, and special education,” Kimberly L. Hough, assistant superintendent of the school division’s Personnel Services Department, said at a recent Loudoun School Board meeting.
As the pool of applicants decreases, the number of students who need special education and English language services has ticked up. In 2010, the county’s 6,151 ELL students made up 10 percent of the total pupil population. The most recent figures show the county had 8,782 ELL students who made up 12 percent of total enrollment last school year. From 2009 to 2014, pupils in special education grew from 10.4 percent to 11.1 percent of total enrollment.
Those rates are expected to go up again after December enrollment numbers are tallied.
“This is not a new problem, but it’s getting worse,” Jodi Folta said of the lack of special education teachers. She is the chairwoman of the school system’s advocacy group Special Education Advisory Committee. “We’re seeing more and more vacant teaching positions.”
The reason for the growing gap between students needing specialized services and instructors qualified to teach them may simple.
A lot of young people who want to teach don’t often think of working in anything but a typical classroom, said Jill Turgeon, vice chairwoman of the Loudoun County School Board and former elementary school teacher.
That’s how it was for Wendy de la Torre. She earned her degree in elementary education and, at first, taught middle school science in Florida. “I never intended to teach ELL, but it’s how it ended up because my skill set matched the need,” she said.
She’s stuck with it because she feels she’s helping bridge the gap between immigrant families and the schools. Often times, her students’ parents at Seneca Ridge Middle School—and families whom she doesn’t have in class—approach her for help with in-school and out-of-school problems because she speaks Spanish.
“The fact they know there’s a teacher who speaks their language makes it easier for them to get more involved in their kids’ education,” de la Torre said. “I really feel like I’m being helpful to a lot of these families.”
A lot of young people interested in a career in education also have a misconception of what it’s like to teach special education and ELL, Turgeon said.
Speaking to special education, she said many picture instructors teaching a classroom of children with severe disabilities. But special education teachers typically work alongside students with learning disabilities in general education classes. Their focus is on communicating with the classroom teacher about the best learning environment for their student.
When Turgeon taught second grade at Cool Springs Elementary School, she saw special education teachers who enjoyed a special bond with their students. They spent more one-on-one time with them and often stayed on as their teacher for years.
“They serve as their mentor and lifeline in the classroom,” Turgeon said. “If more people saw that they might be more inclined to work in special education.”
It’s similar for ELL, she added. Many think the job of the instructor is to teach the students English, but much of their time is actually spent teaching a wide range of subject areas and helping the students make meaningful connections to the material.
Folta agrees that it’s important to get the word out about what it’s like to teach in a specialized area. Plus, she added, higher pay might also draw more educators to hard-to-fill positions.
Loudoun loses teachers to neighboring jurisdictions, especially Fairfax, because they pay more, she said. “We’re already competing for a smaller number of applicants, and its even harder if we can’t compete with our neighboring districts.”
She also suggested paying special education teachers more than a typical classroom teacher. “They’re creating [individualized education plans]. They’re collecting data. They’re in meetings all the time. It’s harder.”
The men and women in charge of hiring for the Loudoun school system’s 10,000 positions have revamped their strategies to recruit teachers for special education and students learning English.
In February, the Personnel Services Department hosted a job fair specifically for ELL and special education candidates, and, in May, it held a second fair dedicated just to ELL candidates.
Personnel staff members are also targeting colleges and universities that have large ELL certification programs. This year, they plan to start recruiting students graduating from colleges in states that already require ELL courses as part of their general education course work, such as California, Texas and Florida.
The school system also is working with the Virginia Department of Education and George Mason University to expedite the certification requirements to teach students not yet proficient in English, one of the most difficult areas to get a provisional teaching certificate.
“We want them to look at that because this is a challenge not only for LCPS but other school districts,” Hough said.
While there hasn’t been talk of a pay bump aimed at just those most-needed positions, the personnel staff wants to make more job offers earlier. That can be tricky because the School Board doesn’t typically adopt a final budget for the following fiscal year until May; the document dictates how many positions will be needed.
But making job offers to candidates in February or March instead of May can mean the difference between hiring high-quality teachers and losing them to neighboring jurisdictions.
“We started this last year because we we’re trying to beat our competitors, and this year we’ll continue to offer early contracts,” Hough said.
She’s even taken the schools’ recruiting efforts to the airwaves. She and Sterling Middle School Principal Gus Martinez were interviewed on Spanish radio program WBTK 1380 AM last year about the need for more Spanish-speaking teachers.
To keep up these targeted efforts, Hough told School Board members recently that her department would need more staff and funding. During the next budget season, she is expected to request money for at least two full-time positions to better compete for the decreasing number of rising teachers. Right now, the division has no dedicated recruiting staff.
Turgeon commended Hough and her team for their work to attract more qualified applicants.
“It’s great to see LCPS really pushing this and showing what all the different areas of teaching have to offer,” she said. “It alleviates some of the stereotypes people may have and, I think, will eventually mean more quality teachers in the classroom. Every little effort we make to recruit helps.”
[This is the second installment of an occasional series that will look at how Loudoun’s public schools are trying to hire for the most difficult-to-fill positions, and spark an interest in education careers in students as early as middle school.]
Contact Danielle Nadler at email@example.com.