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CPS looks within to hire for hard-to-fill special ed teaching jobs

Jason Hudson is one of 137 teachers in a program that seeks to address a severe shortage in special education teachers in Chicago.

CPS special education teacher
Jason Hudson, in his classroom at Fort Dearborn Elementary, before school started last week
Nader Issa/Sun-Times

Heading into a new school year in the fall of 2017, Jason Hudson had already come close to quitting his Chicago Public Schools job three times over nearly two decades with the district, and was considering doing so again.

But instead of quitting, Hudson figured he’d take a shot at a new program being offered by CPS.

Hudson had spent years as a special education classroom assistant, and now the school district was offering its employees a chance to get training and qualify for a full-time special ed teaching job in two or three years. The program was an unorthodox approach to filling CPS’ special education teaching shortage — which has hit Chicago hard, but also schools nationwide. The district has put most of the blame for the shortage on a lack of qualified candidates.

”I had put it in my head that morning, ‘You know I think this is probably going to be my last year no matter what,’” Hudson recalls now. “‘I’ve already given it like 19 years. I finish this and it’ll be 20. I think I want to do something different, so I think I’m going to try again unless something changes my mind.’ But that morning I saw that email, and I was like, ‘Here we go again.’”

From there, Hudson’s decision to stick around became much simpler: He was accepted into CPS’ teaching residency program, received a provisional teaching certificate after his first year of training and last week set up his new 8th grade classroom at Fort Dearborn Elementary School in Auburn Gresham, the neighborhood where he lives.

Teaching residency program has two tracks

Hudson, 40, was one of 25 CPS employees to go through the first year of the residency program. All 25 completed academic coursework and student-teaching assignments under seasoned CPS special education teachers.

This school year, they have been granted provisional educator licenses making them eligible to teach in their own classrooms while continuing to go through training. If they complete this year’s additional coursework, all 25 — who have bachelor’s degrees in other fields already — will receive a Master of Arts in Teaching degree and be guaranteed full-time jobs.

Hudson, whose undergraduate degree is in business administration, called his student-teaching experience “wonderful” even though he admitted he was reluctant to learn the new skills at times. “It’s hard to teach new tricks to an old dog,” he said. But he soon realized those methods were invaluable in the classroom during his residency.

CPS special education teacher
Hudson in his classroom
Nader Issa/Sun-Times

Another 112 people are starting the program this school year, with 90 going from non-teaching bachelor’s degrees to a master’s, and another 22 taking a slightly different track to go from associate’s degrees to a bachelor’s in teaching.

After their two years in the program, the new teachers are fully licensed and can work in any school district. CPS, however, requires they commit to at least three years in Chicago.

‘Staffing shortage is crisis level’

Those 137 CPS employees, however, will only partially address the district’s staffing shortage. As of Aug. 20, the district had 599 special education teaching job vacancies, records show.

On Tuesday, CPS said the vacancies were now down to 294 as new teachers officially were added to the rolls for the new school year.

The lack of special education teachers has left many schools with so few options that they’ve at times moved regular teachers to instruct special education classrooms. The problem has become so untenable that the state placed a monitor at CPS last year after it found that the state’s largest school system illegally “delayed and denied” services to students, violating state and federal laws.

“I support that program, and I really hope they expand that program. ... But CPS’ overall special education staffing shortage is crisis level,” said Chris Yun, an education policy analyst at the disability rights group Access Living who was part of the team that prompted the state investigation.

Chris Yun access living
Chris Yun (right) of Access Living has been among those calling on CPS to provide better special-ed support.
Pat Nabong/For the Sun-Times

Yun said last week that CPS still hasn’t done enough to fix the problems the state found, and she has been critical of the district in recent weeks for its newly approved $7.7 million budget. She said the support the budget provides for special education students and students with disabilities isn’t enough.

As for the teaching residency program, Yun said it shows CPS is “going in the right direction,” but she still has worries.

“What concerns me is CPS had [hundreds of] special education teacher vacancies throughout the last school year,” Yun said. “Adding 25 is very meaningful. I really support incubating teachers. But it’s really not enough. They really need to amp up their efforts.”

‘Having a past in CPS helps’

The idea to fill the shortage internally has its benefits, including familiarity with not only the district, but specific communities and students.

Hudson, for example, spent nearly a decade at Fort Dearborn Elementary, where he now returns after a year away as a full-fledged teacher. Of the 353 students enrolled at the school last year, 97% were black and 94% were low income.

fort dearborn cps
Jason Hudson will be back this fall at Fort Dearborn Elementary School in Auburn Gresham.
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“Having a past in CPS helps me develop a rapport with students because I know pretty much what to expect from the kids,” Hudson said. “So the kids can’t pull new teacher tricks on me because I’ve seen it for the past 20 years. I know what you should not be doing, I know how to redirect you. I already know how to develop relationships with your parents. And I know how to get you back on task immediately.”

Hudson’s excitement was palpable as he worked to set up his new classroom for the start of school this Tuesday.

“It’s a little surreal because this is my 21st year with CPS,” Hudson said. “I can say this is my first school year that I’m a little nervous. It’s not a bad nervous, it’s just I don’t know what to expect, only because it’s something new.”

“I never wanted to be a teacher,” Hudson adds, candidly. “I think I had been running from what is a calling in my life now, which is to be an educator. And I was just afraid to take it.”