CPS Expanding Tuition Reimbursement Program to Fill Special Education Vacancies

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This article was published on WTTW by Matt Masterson on December 18, 2020.

By the time Arlene Comendador joined Frazier International Magnet School on Chicago’s West Side last winter, she already knew she wanted more for herself in her career.

Comendador began work as a substitute teaching English language arts at the elementary school, but she said it had always been her dream to work with special education students. The problem was, she needed an additional certification and she didn’t know if she’d have the time or money to get that done.

Then she learned from her principal of a new pilot program Chicago Public Schools was running exactly for people like her, offering free tuition to current district teachers so they can get those certifications and help fill desperately needed special education teaching positions.

“It was so worthwhile,” Comendador said, “very much worthwhile for all of us.”

Comendador was part of the first cohort of teachers to take part in the school district’s special education teacher tuition sponsorship program, which subsidizes the costs for educators like Comendador who’re seeking these types of teaching roles.

On Wednesday, the Chicago Board of Education approved funding to expand that even further.

Through the program, the school district will now provide $310,000 in tuition reimbursement for educators who will work to earn a special education endorsement at one of four Chicago-area universities: Chicago State University, National Louis University, Northeastern Illinois University and the University of St. Francis.

Once they earn that endorsement, they’re guaranteed a special education teaching position within CPS for at least one year.

Ben Felton, the CPS executive director of teacher recruitment, called the program a win-win for both teachers and their schools.

“Teachers that have these connections to schools, they know the staff, they know the principals,” he said. “We’re not asking teachers to transfer out of their buildings and there’s a really good chance they know the students too.”

The tuition will be used to support teachers who, once enrolled in a subsequent endorsement program at one of those universities, will take a handful of classes along with a content test over the course of one or two semesters.

About two dozen educators, including Comendador, completed this process as part of a pilot program earlier this year, and with the newly approved funding, 72 more candidates have been selected to begin their coursework starting in January.

Those educators will take three to four classes between the winter and spring semesters, learning more about the methods and assessments involved in working with diverse learners and drafting individualized education plans for their students.

They’ll then earn their endorsement over the summer and be ready to begin work as a full-time special education teacher by the start of the 2021-22 school year.

CPS said it currently has 245 unfilled full-time special education positions. The hope is that this program — along with other initiatives like a residency program, international teaching program and an expanded base of student teachers — can help drive that number down further.

Felton said CPS has added some 800 special education teachers since the start of the 2017-18 school year, but there’s a significant shortage of these difficult-to-fill roles, oftentimes in predominantly Black and Latino schools on the South and West sides.

Those are the areas this program targets, Felton said, and of the latest cohort of educators, 40% are Black and 22% are Latino.

“We’re really excited about the opportunity to continue to invest in veteran teachers in our schools,” Felton said, “and simultaneously addressing a real critical need that we do have special education vacancies and we’re looking for innovative ways to address them.”

Comendador began her work as a special education teacher at Frazier at the beginning of this school year, and said she hopes to continue helping her students “achieve their biggest dreams.”

“They are so wonderful,” she said. “It’s so fulfilling to advocate for them. These students have strength and just need special support to bring out the best in them. And I’m here to help maximize that.”