AUGUSTA – More than one in six Maine children require special education services, but only one in eight teachers working with them is fully certified.

Maine will use a five-year, $3.35 million federal grant, announced Friday, to try to fix that. The grant aims to improve training programs and increase the number of highly qualified special education teachers, said Jan Breton, federal program coordinator at the Maine Department of Education.

“There’s a shortage of special educators across the country,” Breton said. “So what happens is that a school system has to have a teacher, and they will find the best teacher that they can possibly find, but sometimes that person is not fully certified as a special education teacher.

“They may have a teaching degree and just need a course or two. Sometimes it’s more than a few courses.”

Maine had 34,425 special education students in 2007 – 17.7 percent of total enrollment.

Last year, there were 4,072 special education personnel, 12.5 percent of whom were not fully certified. Hancock County had the highest percentage of special educators needing additional certification, 38 percent.

The fact that Maine’s teacher salaries are lower than those in nearby states may contribute to the shortage, Breton said.

The Maine Department of Education will work with the University of Maine System and other institutions in the state to develop a long-range plan for providing the training such teachers need.

The state also will have to partner with institutions in Massachusetts, because no one in Maine provides training in two specialties with particular shortages – teachers of visually impaired students and those who teach students with orientation and mobility needs.

The grant money will also go toward increasing the number of special education students in regular classrooms, helping teachers adapt their instruction to the new common core standards and training teachers to help students develop effective postsecondary plans. Finding instructors for students with autism is also a challenge.

“The numbers of kids that are diagnosed on the autism spectrum is just rising all across the country, and Maine hasn’t been exempt from that,” Benton said. “We’re going to put some money into providing some support and training to teachers who are working with children on the spectrum.”

Augusta schools Special Education Director Donna Madore said the number of special needs children in the district has declined with overall enrollment. But the needs of today’s students are more significant.

When the district advertises for a special education teacher, Madore said they do not get as many experienced highly qualified applicants as she would like.

The turnover rate is also high.

“I think we have a shortage because it’s hard work. It’s intensive,” Madore said. “And people may not stay in that field for any length of time.”

Augusta provides mentors to new special education teachers, especially ones who come in with less experience.

Madore said she was happy to hear there will be more support at the state level.

Maine will contribute $27,000 of existing state and federal resources to supplement the State Personnel Development Grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs.

It’s not yet clear when the money will become available, Benton said.

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Susan McMillan can be contacted at 621-5645 or at:

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