Hundreds of California school districts are grappling with an ever-worsening shortage of special education teachers, paying out big signing bonuses and increasingly hiring under-prepared candidates to fill classrooms.
But in the Mountain View Whisman School District, that's only part of the problem. Special education instructional aides -- essential support staff for the district's most vulnerable students -- are frequently leaving the school district after less than a year, according to district reports dating back three years. The high attrition rate forces the district into a year-round recruitment spree to replace staff, and puts an additional burden on change-averse students with disabilities.
The school district has had to hire 82 special education instructional aides since August 2014, according to personnel reports dating back to the start of the 2014-15 school year. Of those aides, more than half have already left the district -- most resigning within one year of when they started. The average tenure among those who have left the district is 10 months.
Special education aides help classroom teachers with the important task of accommodating students with disabilities, working one-on-one with students and ensuring that the school is doing its best to fulfill each students' Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The aides help out in mainstream classrooms as well as so-called special day classes for students with more intensive needs.
Manny Velasco, who served for 10 years as an instructional assistant for the district, said the job requires a huge amount of flexibility and talent in order to accommodate every student's individual needs, and provide an environment that is the "most conducive" for learning. Instead of a list of clear-cut tasks, he said, the aides have to get to know each student as an individual and learn what works and what doesn't each year.
"The (aides) must understand students, predict behavior and mitigate that behavior before it escalates," Velasco told the Voice in an email. "All while trying to adapt, in real time, the academic intake of the student and ensure they are afforded the same opportunity to learn as all other students."
Although instructional assistants may be seen as an afterthought for the community, parents of students with disabilities see them as the "front line" for taking care of their children, said Christine Case-Lo, a parent of a child with special needs.
"Aides are the people on the ground who really, really get your kid," she said. "They allow the classroom to run."
Unlike teachers, aides are given the option to work only 30 hours per week at an hourly rate ranging from $17.80 to $23.86, significantly less than salaried teaching staff. Data collected by the website Transparent California found that the highest-paid special education aide received $45,613 last year -- thanks to $8,000 in overtime pay. The next highest-paid aide received $36,607. Pay for instructional aides generally falls below that of custodians, groundskeepers, maintenance workers, bus drivers and library staff, according to the website.
The high turnover problem is hardly new or unique to Mountain View. Studies dating back to the 1960s found that paraprofessional jobs in special education have been characterized by high attrition, low pay, a sense of low status and friction between teachers and instructional aides. A 2007 study published in Remedial and Special Education found that the problem is felt "at every level within a school district," from students all the way to the central office, and that it's incumbent on districts to support instructional aides and "develop a team culture in which paraprofessionals feel valued."
But past decisions show that Mountain View Whisman has largely moved backward on supporting instructional aides. In early 2010, district administrators scaled back the hours instructional aides worked at the district's autism program from 40 hours per week to 30, cutting benefits and reducing annual pay. District administrators justified their decision by saying there was a "lack of work" -- essentially claiming the aides had nothing to do after a six-hour shift -- but parents at the time feared it would amount to short-changing some of the district's neediest students.
"The aides are often there all day," Case-Lo said. "They don't get enough credit, they don't get enough training and they definitely don't get paid enough money."
State test results have shown that there's a huge achievement gap in the Mountain View Whisman district between students with disabilities and those without. In the case of math, for example, only 17 percent of students with disabilities met or exceeded state standards last year, compared with 66 percent of students without a disability. That 49-point difference is much larger than the overall state average, revealing a massive discrepancy in local student performance.
An anonymous teacher survey from late 2013 revealed that special education staff faced a constant struggle to find time for all of their responsibilities; they insisted that a single prep period each day was not nearly enough time for IEP meetings, testing, paperwork and planning. General classroom teachers said they also struggled to get students tested to see if they qualify for special education accommodations; this forced them to take on an "unstated addition" to their workload.
The decision to gut hours and benefits for Slater staff prompted parents, including Case-Lo, to create a special education PTA called the Learning Challenges Committee to support special education services in the district. The committee worked in 2015 to ensure that special day classes had a permanent home at every school site -- a change from the district practice of putting them at whatever campus had room -- to avoid forcing students to uproot and move each year.
Kids with special needs are particularly sensitive to these kinds of changes, and having a revolving set of instructional aides entering and leaving the district each year certainly doesn't help, Case-Lo said.
"It's incredibly traumatic for the child, because they have trouble with change," she said.
Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said he is aware of the high turnover rate, and called it an unfortunate statewide trend. Special education instructional aides, like special education teachers, are always in short supply, he said, and districts throughout the Bay Area have to provide incentives and other perks to stand out.
"They are the hottest commodity in education right now," he said. "They really have their pick on where they want to go."
Some researchers argue that sweetening the deal doesn't have to come in the form of a pay increase, but a promise of a better job. Desiree Carver-Thomas, a researcher at the Learning Policy Institute, said there are positive signs that paraprofessional teacher training programs, which make it easier for instructional assistants to transition into higher-paying teaching jobs, can go a long way toward retaining staff for longer periods of time.
California's state Legislature agreed to invest $30 million in the statewide Paraprofessional Teacher Training Program. A 2008 report found that the program, known as Grow Your Own, was able to successfully transition classified employees into teaching positions over a 13-year period. Among the program's 1,708 graduates -- 25 percent of whom were special education teachers -- 92 percent remained employees in California's public schools.
"This is not surprising," Carver-Thomas said. "Our research has found that participants of Grow Your Own certification programs tend to have higher teacher retention rates than national averages."
Velasco, who currently serves as president of the local California School Employees Association, said the biggest contributing factor for the high turnover is the high cost of living in the Bay Area. Living in or near Mountain View is increasingly difficult, and many employees have to commute for more than an hour to get to school.
"This is especially hard on part-time employees whose paychecks are not even covering their basic necessities, let alone the gas it takes to get to work," he said. "This is not a district issue, it is an issue we have seen grow and grow here in Mountain View."