The Portland school district’s special education programs are understaffed and educators are struggling to keep them running smoothly.

That’s according to information the Portland school district shared at its board meeting Tuesday evening.

Of Portland Public Schools’ 17 special education programs, 11 have at least one vacant position, Jesse Applegate, the district’s director of special education, said in a presentation to the board. Program leaders are stretched thin, spending most of their time working to bring in new employees. Program leaders and their staff also are struggling to complete tasks, including data collection and developing individualized programs.

The district is simultaneously working to turn the situation around and restructure its three special education programs – Beach, Functional Life Skills and Breathe.

The district is in the early stages of figuring out how it wants to restructure them. Applegate told the school board that the department and the district plan to look at specialized programming as a whole and ultimately develop a vision for what it should look like. By June, he said, the district hopes to have developed an implementation plan that outlines how the programs will be staffed and managed, how curriculum decisions will be made and processes for how students will be placed in the programs. He later added that he hopes the district can organize and staff the programs in a way that will eliminate some of the staffing needs and ensure the district is using the resources it has as efficiently as possible.

Around 180 of the district’s 6,500 students are enrolled in one of the special education programs.


The functional life skills program is typically for students with intellectual disabilities. The program is designed to provide students considerable functional support.

In the Beach program, educators help students develop communication and daily living skills and improve their emotional regulation. The program is designed for students with developmental delays, significant behavioral needs and autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders.

The district’s Breathe program, the largest of the three programs, works to support students with emotional and behavioral needs and is designed to be flexible so students who require different amounts of help can spend different amounts of time in general education settings.

Since the beginning of the school year, the district has filled 18 vacant special education staff positions with contracted staff, including behavioral health professionals and certified nurse assistants, and hired five education technicians. It’s not clear if the district started the year down 23 special education staff or if it is filling positions left vacant by people who have departed this year. The district said it continues to work to fill more positions, conducting multiple interviews per week.

Moving forward, the district plans to continue its recruiting efforts and establish a working group to study the special education programs and create a vision for the three programs’ futures.

Applegate’s presentation did not explain why the district’s special education programs are understaffed. However, a long-running educator shortage caused by low pay and hard work and exacerbated by the pandemic is particularly acute for special education teachers and has left school districts around the state and country short of special educators.

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