BILLINGS -- Theresa Lombardi's mom taught special education in Deer Lodge, and her family adopted several children with special needs.
“I grew up helping my parents take care of my siblings,” the first-year Elder Grove special education teacher said. “That’s what I was used to and what I wanted to do.”
But her experience isn’t typical, and teacher shortages in special education are more severe than in any other subject area, according to the latest version of an Office of Public Instruction teacher shortage report.
As concerns about a national teacher shortage ramp up, rural school administrators say that longtime struggles to recruit and retain teachers have reached “crisis” levels. Schools had twice as many special education vacancies than any other subject, according to the report, and it’s not just in small towns.
“When I can’t fill Great Falls, Kalispell and Helena, how am I going to fill Opheim?” said Lori Ruffier, who leads the Montana Schools Recruitment Project for Montana Council of Administrators of Special Education. Bozeman is also on her recruiting list for next year.
It’s Ruffier who recruited Lombardi to Elder Grove, and it’s her job to help find special education teachers and specialists for other districts. The shortage remains daunting, but the program's success in supplying speech pathologists could prove instructive.
Beginning in the 1950s, the University of Montana’s Communicative Science and Disorders department taught hundreds of students to help kids overcome lisps, stutters and the inability to swallow. But when the state felt a fiscal squeeze in the late 1980s, expensive clinical programs that required small classes and one-on-one instruction were closed — including the speech pathology program in 1989.
Speech pathologists ranked high on the subject-area shortage list “for years and years and years,” Ruffier said.
The program rebooted in 2008 and graduated its first new class in 2011. By combining a local employment pipeline with more aggressive recruiting, more Montana schools have a speech specialist, Ruffier said.
Ruffier began trying to jump-start Montana’s special education hiring in 2005, and she continues to work in Deer Lodge as a part-time school psychologist. Starting out, she found that Montana’s efforts lagged behind other states.
At national conferences, she took notes on recruiting booths that other states set up. She sets up website postings for districts and works on selling Montana’s image. She modeled much of her approach after Arizona’s recruitment; the state also has several rural districts and markets its natural beauty.
Ruffier tries to sell Montana’s identity, recreation opportunities and low cost of living. She also emphasizes efforts for professional networking to avoid isolation and tries to match the right people with the right jobs.
“Beside recruiting, it’s retention. You don’t want to send someone to Opheim, and they hate it and leave in two weeks,” Ruffier said.
She prefers to leave money out of online posts.
“If I don’t have to put in our salary, I don’t. … They’re not even going to look at us,” she said.
Montana pays beginning teachers worse than any other state in the country, according to information collected by the Department of Education and National Education Association.
Ruffier doesn’t like to dwell on the topic and thinks that putting a more positive spin on education is crucial to recruitment efforts. She’s working on developing advice for high schools to pitch special education as a career option to their students — a homegrown approach that seems to account for a significant proportion of teachers who work in rural districts.
Lombardi, who attended Montana State University Billings, recalls several teaching students who were initially interested in special education but later dropped the subject.
“It is easier, probably, to get a job in special education,” she said. “Somewhere along the line they decide not to, I guess.”
She suggested that maximizing the integration of special education students into all classrooms could help inspire students to teach in the field.
Until they do, some kids will miss out. Districts with unfilled positions use long-term substitutes or existing staff to get by, Ruffier said.
“It’s sad to know that some kids who don’t have a (teacher) really need it.”