Originally created 11/05/06

Special education program looks to attract students



AIKEN - Counting by ones started Thursday's board work for intern Sara Sikes at Jefferson Elementary.

Her third-grade through fifth-grade pupils eagerly awaited the chance to write the answers on the white board with a green marker.

She keeps the class on task like any other teacher down the hall, but having only six pupils makes the job a bit easier than a class of 20.

Her mentor, Jefferson Elementary teacher Carmen Downs, said the small ratio is just one of the perks to working in special education class - a fact that potential teachers might overlook.

Ms. Sikes will be the only December graduate of the special education program at the University of South Carolina Aiken, but program director Dr. Windy Schweder hopes Ms. Sikes' experience will attract more students to the school's degree program.

In only its third year, the program has steady enrollment numbers, but Dr. Schweder said she didn't think potential teachers in the area know it exists.

"There's such a huge shortage nationally," Dr. Schweder said. "I know that South Carolina even recruits special education teachers from Romania."

Last year, South Carolina schools had 131 special education vacancies, according to South Carolina Center for Recruitment, Retention and Advancement. About 1,000 special education teachers are employed in the state.

The center's executive director, Dr. Gayle Sawyer, said the need for positions continues to grow as school enrollment increases and more students are identified with special needs.

Georgia also has increased the special education work force by 25 percent since 2001, going from 11,698 to 14,677 jobs to accommodate the need for special education teachers. Special education degrees are also a growing program in South Carolina.

"A lot of teachers don't understand special needs teaching, so they don't consider special needs teaching as something they'd like to enter," Dr. Sawyer said.

Ms. Sikes and Ms. Downs said they've encountered stigmas that go along with special education, but they said the setting has changed drastically in the last few years.

"The biggest thing is they feel the paperwork is too much ... but it is almost the same as academic plans that regular teachers fill out for PACT and No Child Left Behind," Ms. Sikes said.

Ms. Sikes said she decided to stay an extra semester for a general education certificate as a fall-back plan when preparing her education plan, but her special education degree doesn't have any more requirements than any other education degree at USC Aiken.

"Currently, a lot of the general education is the same, except for pre-professional courses," Dr. Schweder said.

Dr. Schweder said classes on behaviors might be taught in the psychology department instead of through the education department. Students specializing in special education also have to complete the similar practicums and internships as a general education student, but their classes are tailored to the special education field.

Dr. Schweder said students considering the field shouldn't look at how stressful the job might be, because any teaching job is stressful.

"Working with children, period, you have to be patient and flexible," Dr. Schweder said. "A student pursuing special education might be more empathetic and intuitive about needs, but they still have to be passionate about teaching and motivated."

Reach Julia Sellers at (803) 648-1395, ext. 106, or julia.sellers@augustachronicle.com.

AFTER GRADUATION

USC Aiken special education graduates will be able to teach in Georgia or South Carolina upon approval of teaching certificates by the respective state's education department.