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UW-Madison works to fill special education teacher shortage in rural schools

A new masters program offers students a stipend in return for a three-year commitment to teaching in rural Wisconsin districts.
Published: Nov. 24, 2020 at 5:58 PM CST
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GREEN COUNTY, Wis. (WMTV) - Wisconsin schools across the state are facing a shortage of special education teachers, especially in smaller rural districts. A new UW-Madison masters program is working to fill that gap.

According to the state’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI), during the 2018-2019 school year, Wisconsin issued over 1,000 emergency licenses for special education teachers. That number is 55 percent higher than the previous year.

Juda School District superintendent Traci Davis has seen that need for special education teachers firsthand.

“They have to be able to serve all of the different types of students,” Davis said, explaining this is a challenge for many teachers.

Juda has three full-time special education teachers, but two are close to retiring.

“We’re kind of preparing for when our staff leave us,” Davis explained.

It can be hard for districts to recruit more special education teachers, especially for smaller districts like Juda.

“Sometimes there will only be one or two special educators in a small rural district,” said Kimber Wilkerson, a UW-Madison professor of special education.

The university is trying to meet that need with a new program. The Special Education Teacher (UW-SET) Residency Program allows students to earn their masters degree while spending a year shadowing teachers in a small district.

“It also helps with retention, so people who are better prepared aren’t as stressed by their first years of teaching,” Wilkerson explained.

Wilkerson helped secure a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to fund the program over five years. The university partnered with several small districts in Wisconsin to place UW-SET students.

“You really get to implement what you’re learning in UW in the classroom right away,” said UW-SET student Conrad Schnell.

That experience is what drew Schnell to the UW-SET program initially. Schnell is spending the school year working in Juda.

“It’s been really great getting that hands-on experience even if it’s at a social distanced area,” he said.

The program also works to keep students in Wisconsin. In return for a living stipend, students commit to three years teaching in one of the rural schools UW-Madison has partnered with.

“Yes, they’ll be a first year teacher, but they’ll be a first year ‘plus’ teacher because they’ve already had the experiences,” Davis explained.

Over the next five years, the university hopes to put 40 more special education teachers in Wisconsin schools.

“I appreciate a university like Madison seeing that need and then doing something about it,” Davis said, adding, “They’re putting time and money into it and I think it’s really paying off.”

To learn more about the UW-SET program, click here.

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