Darien schools struggle to hire for special education as officials worry existing staff will 'burn out'

Darien schools

Darien schools

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

DARIEN — After losing another special education teacher in January, Darien Public Schools and the Board of Education are grappling with how to fill ongoing gaps in special education staffing during a nationwide shortage. 

“Just to be clear, the resignation of this special ed teacher is strapping a department that was already a little tight in special ed resources, correct?” Board of Education vice chair Jill McCammon asked during the Jan. 10 meeting.

Darien Public Schools has been faced with a shortage of special education teachers and resources as well as school psychologists, a need that became painfully apparent in December, when Ox Ridge Parent Teacher Organization co-chair Meghan Thornton said parents were not properly informed that their students had missed multiple services throughout the year, in part because of short-staffing.

Thornton said one student at the school missed 20 sessions without their family's knowledge. 

Assistant Superintendent Shirley Klein took responsibility for the breakdown in communication over missed sessions, adding that the current staff was “equally upset."

“We share the same understanding that every parent should be informed if their child is not seen, and every parent should work with whoever is informing them to say ‘Here is the plan for the makeups,’” Klein said. “If the plan, unfortunately, is we don't have someone to provide those services right now, we work together to find out however we probably could manage this.”

Finding staff for special education is a challenge not just for Darien but for countless districts across the state and country. The state Department of Education recognized special education and psychologists as statewide shortages in the 2021-22 academic year. 

As of this writing, the Darien Public Schools online job listings included four open positions for school psychologists and five listings for special education teachers.

The district’s director of human resources Marjorie Cion said the January resignation was a “good story,” for the teacher who was pursuing a practicum to become a school counselor. She said that medical leaves and other teachers resigning from the district has forced teachers to fill in where they can and cover the absences throughout the year.

As the Board of Education debates the budget for the upcoming school year, board members have repeatedly asked administration to provide a list of what resources special education programs need, not just for the upcoming school year but for the current one as well.

Chairman David Dineen has emphasized over multiple meetings that the board is willing to find the dollars to help the district hire whatever staff is needed. As often as the board has offered to help, school administration has responded that this is not simply a monetary issue the board can solve — there are not enough applicants. 

"Normally there would have been a group of people who graduated (from college) in December, but we haven't seen that this year," Cion said in early January. "We keep pushing out advertisements and people contacting universities. We keep finding people to interview."

It has become enough of a pattern that during the board’s Jan. 24 meeting, when Dineen asked the school administration to provide a plan on how to meet the district’s special education needs between now and the end of the school year, he added, “I know (Cion) will look at me and say finding people is this unbelievable challenge.

“We'll back into the dollars, but we're committed to doing it because I see this is continuing to grow as more students come into our community,” Dineen added. “I want to be ahead of it, and I don’t want to be catching up.”

The district has requested funding in the proposed 2023-24 school budget to add additional full-time equivalent staff for special education and speech and language pathology at the high school and Ox Ridge elementary school as well as six full-time equivalent special education paraprofessionals for students entering kindergarten from the Early Learning Program. The budget proposal also includes a request to keep two positions at the high school originally funded by the IDEA-ARP grant.

With resources stretched thin, however, several Board of Education members have asked to know the numbers that special education teachers and psychologists are facing.

As recently as Jan. 17, board member Kadiatu Lublin requested specific caseload numbers after hearing continued concerns from parents.

Special education teachers have a median caseload of 16 students at the high school and 12 students in both middle and elementary schools. School psychologists have a median caseload of 17 students at the high school and middle school and 20 at the elementary schools, they were told. 

“Highs, lows and medians just are not giving us the picture we need to understand,” Lublin said. “It’s quite easy to be thrown off by a high or low, so I’d love to see actual caseloads for special education providers, for psychologists.”

In an overview of the district’s special education program in December, Klein said staffing shortages were being “remedied” by having teachers take on students not within their caseload during preparation hours and lunch.

“Their commitment to supporting students during these challenging times certainly has been humbling,” Klein said.

After Klein’s presentation, board member Julie Best noted that while it was admirable that teachers were working above and beyond to make sure students received proper attention, the end result was “unsustainable.”

“We’re potentially creating our next departure, so to speak, as people burn out,” Best said. “Are there any other creative ways we can use resources to support those individuals who are now being over extended?”

“I wish I knew the answer to that,” Klein responded.