A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
Addressing the special education teacher shortage at the local level
How one SELPA in Los Angeles County created a special education teacher residency program
By Tamara Schiern | March | April 2024
After 24 years in special education, I left the district in which I’d spent my career and embarked on a new experience to become the administrator for the West San Gabriel Valley Special Education Local Plan Area. As we know, special education has always faced staffing shortages in hard-to-staff areas, and over the course of the pandemic, that critical teacher and paraprofessional shortage has reached crisis level. In my prior district, pre-COVID, I had applied for a “Local Solutions” grant to address the special education teacher shortage, and with those funds, I created a fully funded induction program for preliminary special education teachers. Taking on a new leadership position in the middle of a pandemic, I wasn’t sure how the ongoing staffing shortages would present, and I suspected they would only continue to increase in intensity.
In July 2021, under the backdrop of most schools opening “normally” for the first time in over a year, ongoing COVID-19 fears, “surges” and vaccination policies, I began my position as executive director of the West San Gabriel Valley SELPA. Shortly after, Alhambra Unified School District Superintendent Denise Jaramillo, whose district serves as our SELPA’s Administrative Unit, forwarded me communications she had received from a representative at Alder Graduate School of Education. Alder had approached Alhambra USD with a proposal of partnership for a Teacher Residency program, but Alhambra USD didn’t think they had enough need to support a whole program. Jaramillo recommended that perhaps the SELPA could consider partnering with Alder on behalf of our 14 school districts.
West San Gabriel Valley SELPA
The West San Gabriel Valley SELPA is located in urban Los Angeles County, just east of Pasadena, and running along the 10 and 210 freeway corridor, south of the San Gabriel Mountains and west of (but not including) West Covina. Our 14 districts, with a total ADA of approximately 80,000, are socio-economically diverse, ranging from some of the highest socio-economic ZIP codes in the nation to neighborhoods that are above 85 percent below the poverty level. Our districts are also ethnically diverse, with large populations of Hispanic and Asian ethnicities, and several of our districts have 40 percent to 50 percent English learners. Still, all of our districts share a strong commitment to meeting the needs of every single student with a disability within our geographic region, even amid challenges with the special education teacher shortage.
Communication and application
In Fall 2021, I engaged in talks with Alder GSE to gather information on their proposal for a partnership. I then took that information to my governing board (made up of the superintendents of each of my districts) which was very enthusiastic about moving forward to see if this could work. In winter 2022 a request for applications for a Techer Residency Capacity Building grant was released, and I set off gathering all the data required from our 14 LEAs, working with Alder GSE to sculpt what the program would look like and drafting a grant proposal.
Teacher Residency Capacity Building Grant
In April 2022, the West San Gabriel Valley SELPA was notified we had received a grant of $250,000 to help us build our program. With those funds, I was able to hire a Teacher Residency Coordinator to build and then oversee the program. I was beyond lucky to find Jill Gulick, at the time a special education teacher in one of my districts, who enthusiastically wanted to travel on this adventure with us.
Gulick came on in July 2022, and I could breathe a little bit because now I had help to build the program. Steps she immediately took included:
1. Coordinating with Alder GSE on recruitment fliers, events, outreach, etc.
2. Weekly meetings with Alder Regional Clinical Director for coaching and program alignment.
3. Bi-weekly partnership meetings with Alder leadership to plan structures on district participation, communication/newsletters, and grants and funding.
4. Weekly clinical faculty meetings with Alder GSE representatives.
5. Aggressive recruitment of mentors and residents through meetings, communication and outreach to district HR staff, special education leadership, bargaining units and community events. (We actively recruited current paraprofessionals as prospective residents as well as individuals who might increase the linguistic and ethnic diversity of our special education staff to more closely align with our student population.)
The proposal
While Gulick actively enga
ged in developing this program from scratch and recruiting participants, the request for applications for the Teacher Residency Implementation Grant (the grant that would actually fund the program) was released. Our proposal was as follows:
1. Mild to Moderate Support Needs Teacher Residency Credential Program offered through the West San Gabriel Valley SELPA partnering with Alder GSE.
2. We requested $625,000 per year to help fund the residency program:
  • $25,000 per resident for up to 25 residents.
  • Each resident would receive a $30,000 stipend, with $20,000 of that coming from the grant and $10,000 from the LEA contribution (whichever LEA they were matched with).
  • Each mentor would receive a $5,000 yearly stipend, $3,000 from the grant and $2,000 from a district contribution.
  • $2,000 per resident for staff to run the program and other costs.
3. Residents would receive substitute teacher credentials and clearance to provide them with classroom independence when mentor teachers are relieved to attend mentor trainings.
4. Funds required in-kind or actual matching funds.
While we waited to find out if we were awarded the grant, we had to continue planning. We held many meetings with our AU Fiscal Services and Human Resources staff to figure out the best ways to add mentor and resident positions, how they would get paid, who would pay them, etc. The logistics of working with 14 LEAs was extremely challenging, with different policies on stipends, different extra hourly rates, different bargaining agreements, and so on. With agreement between my member districts and AU, we decided Alhambra USD, the AU, would be the employer of all mentors from any district, as part-time employees. This method would allow us to ensure everyone received the same mentor stipend. We also decided each LEA would be responsible for bringing on the residents and paying them through contracts, with AUSD reimbursing them through the grant funds. The support and backing of my AU has been critical throughout this journey and Superintendent Jaramillo has been 100 percent supportive of the whole endeavor.
Our vision ... is that we will be in a position to potentially employ up to 25 new special education teachers in our districts every single year.
Meanwhile, Gulick set up resident and mentor interview dates and spent many hours and days conducting observations, interviewing, recruiting and coordinating with districts to match prospective mentors and residents. In addition to all of the above, we also had to draft Partnership Agreements for every resident, which included items like their agreement to work for four years for their district in exchange for the stipend. These Partnership Agreements required legal consultation and collaboration with Alder GSE and our AU Administrative Services. We also drafted 14 MOUs (each member LEA with the SELPA/AU) and sent all 14 to our AU Board of Education, and each LEA sent theirs to their own board. Making it count This journey has not been easy in any way, and it has required the dedication and commitment of many professionals. Our vision, however, is that we will be in a position to potentially employ up to 25 new special education teachers in our districts every single year. When we originally drafted our grant proposal and launched our program, the residents were required to commit to four years of service in the district in which they trained, if they were hired by that district. In 2023, this grant funding legislation changed and now residents must commit to four years of service over eight years in any public school in California. Additionally, increased funding for the grant was provided, increasing the amount per resident we received. The increased funding has allowed us to increase resident stipends to $37,000, and also shift some of our matching funds to allow us to bring on a TOSA to help oversee residents when we expand to 25 in 2024-25. We think the tremendous experiences our residents are having in our schools will result in most remaining within our SELPA for employment. Our vision also includes eventually expanding to include the Extensive Support Needs credential. Jaramillo remains fully supportive of the program: “I firmly believe that the partnership between Alder University and the West San Gabriel Valley SELPA marks a pivotal step in addressing the critical shortage of special education teachers that many districts face. By investing in our educators and equipping them with advanced qualifications, we are not only meeting the immediate needs of our students, but also laying a strong foundation for the future of inclusive education.” In June 2023, our first 12 residents began their seminars and coursework to prepare for their classroom placements when school started in August. As this article is published, we have 12 individuals getting ready to complete their resident year and graduate with masters of education degrees and Preliminary Education Specialist Mild to Moderate Support Needs Credentials. Many, if not all, of these 12 residents will be starting the fall of 2024, filling critical vacancies within our districts. For the 2024-25 school year, we currently have 25 potential residents enrolling. Teacher Residency Coordinator Gulick notes, “The members of our first cohort have worked in classrooms for years [as paraprofessionals] supporting these teachers. Their love of children, their passion for learning, and their belief that all children can thrive are the fuel to their desire of obtaining their master’s degree and credentials.” I encourage any consortium, agency or LEA to reach out with questions or seek guidance on how to create a similar program. This experience has been such an amazing learning journey, and we are eager to share lessons learned to help others also address the special education teacher shortage at the local level. Tamara Schiern is executive director of West San Gabriel Valley SELPA.