Photo by Mark Brown
Rania Parakeva, a special education teacher at Island Lake Elementary School in Shoreview, teaches in her classroom on April 21, 2021.

Creative Thinking

By being inventive, the School of Education tackles a critical teacher shortage in special education.

Working in education gives Rania Paraskeva a sense of fulfillment.

In her most recent position as a special education teacher at Island Lake Elementary, Paraskeva loves watching the children she works with learn new skills and discover their abilities.

“I get so much satisfaction from being able to see the growth in my students,” she said. “They can do so many things. You can’t just write them off. That was the biggest thing for me, I can’t bear to see somebody being treated differently.”

Paraskeva wasn’t new to teaching. Born and raised in Saudi Arabia, she worked at an international school in Dubai. When she moved to Minnesota with her husband 10 years ago, she started subbing at a day care while raising her two young children. When they were old enough for elementary school, she began volunteering in their classrooms.

Eventually, Paraskeva applied for a job as a special education paraprofessional at the school. Her principal recognized the gift she had with children and handed her a flyer about the St. Thomas Work and Learn program. It was just the nudge Paraskeva needed to pursue a master’s degree.

While doing her classroom teaching requirement on the job, Paraskeva was able to continue working as she earned an academic behavioral strategist (ABS) license along with an advanced degree in special ed. This spring, she graduated from the two-year program.

“The lens that they teach from is so eye-opening,” she said. “There’s no busywork, it’s practical application. It's been fantastic. The leadership genuinely do care. They're invested in making us the best possible teachers we can be.”

Rania Parakeva, a special education teacher at Island Lake Elementary School in Shoreview, poses for a portrait in her classroom on April 21, 2021. Photo by Mark Brown.

School of Education Work and Learn Coordinator Barbara Jo Stahl said that through the program they’re creating road maps that have all the characteristics of success while filling a critical need for special education teachers in the state.

“We’re invested with the school districts,” Stahl said. “They vetted their people. You can see that in the cohorts – these are people who really want to be teachers and have a high level of commitment. And no one graduates from our program without a toolkit full of evidence-based practices.”

Partnering with schools to fill a critical shortage

The School of Education supports teachers through a variety of partnerships with school districts, including the Work and Learn program, that allow them to “grow their own” educators by investing in people already working for them.

Work and Learn provides a pathway to teaching for district employees (Tier 1 teachers, Tier 2 teachers and paraprofessionals) who are dedicated to education, are current or prospective employees of one of the partner districts and have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. At the end of the two-year program, participants can earn an ABS license with the ability to easily add a master’s degree or other licenses.

According to the 2021 Minnesota Teacher Supply and Demand Report, special education is the first of three areas where the demand of teachers is highest with the lowest supply. The districts also identified the licensure areas with unfilled positions, and one of the areas identified most was “special education” (which includes ABS licensure).

The first Work and Learn cohort started in fall 2019 after a year of planning among the School of Education’s Department of Special Education and members of partner districts: Intermediate School Districts 916 and 917, and District 196 (Rosemount, Apple Valley and Eagan).

Mark Zuzek, superintendent of Intermediate School District 917, said partnering on Work and Learn with St. Thomas is the “most important collaboration” in which he’s been involved during his more than 25 years as a school administrator.

“When I was looking for a partner for developing a ‘grow your own’ cohort to help paraprofessionals attain licensure as special education teachers, I wanted a partner that could be in it for the long haul and develop a program that could be repeated again and again,” Zuzek said. “I also wanted to help solve the special education teacher shortage for the benefit of students throughout the state of Minnesota.

“The current scale of the shortage is not geographically isolated nor small enough to be met within one or two academic years,” he added. “This effort needs to be sustainable and replicable.”

The program continues to grow. In 2020, it added partnerships with the Shakopee School District along with Intermediate 288 and Anoka-Hennepin. In addition, the School of Education received a $72,000 Reimagine Education grant from the Minneapolis Foundation to support the Robbinsdale Area Schools’ Work and Learn program that kicked off this spring.

Professor L. Lynn Stansberry Brusnahan talks with students during a master's degree class in the school of education in Opus Hall in Minneapolis on December 4, 2018. Photo by Mark Brown.

“Work and Learn happened because of our presence in the community,” said Dr. L. Lynn Stansberry Brusnahan, chair of the School of Education’s Department of Special Education. “Barbara Jo works diligently to ensure we are abreast of the needs of our schools. When schools wanted to do something to address critical teacher shortage areas, they came to us because they saw us as a community partner, as being engaged, as being present.”

With six additional Work and Learn cohorts scheduled to launch this fall, the district-serving model will encompass the seven-county metro area and continue to create a pipeline of licensed teachers to fill critical shortage areas in special education.

“I believe it is essential that teacher preparation programs support the needs of districts and schools in our community,” said Dr. Kathlene Campbell, dean of the School of Education. “By working together, we can ensure the teachers we train utilize the same tools and strategies that are implemented in the districts.”

Seizing opportunity

The Work and Learn program also offers cost savings on ABS license coursework, allows participants to do on-the-job classroom training, helps participants apply for grants and provides a cohort model for support.

Kyle Ellmann has been working with children with special needs in various roles for the last decade, but this is his first year as a teacher. When he was a paraprofessional at Moreland Elementary in West St. Paul, multiple people recommended the Work and Learn program to him. He thought it was a great opportunity, so he applied and was accepted. This spring, he graduated with a master’s degree in special education, along with an ABS license.

“The only way I ever considered going to graduate school was with an opportunity like this one – where I wouldn’t have to sit in a classroom all day and then graduate without any experience,” he said. “I wanted that experience.

Rania Parakeva, a special education teacher at Island Lake Elementary School in Shoreview, teaches in her classroom on April 21, 2021.Photo by Mark Brown

“It’s providing me with the knowledge base to refine what I need to know to become an effective teacher,” Ellmann continued. “It’s also helped me put into practice a lot of the fundamentals that we've been working on.”

He said his cohort, along with Brusnahan and Stahl, has been there for him along the way to offer support.

“It’s been a great relationship,” he said. “I feel that even after I’m out of the program, I’ll still be able to go to my professors for help and advice.”

Filling the need

St. Thomas’ willingness to think outside the box was attractive to Special Education Coordinator Andrea Engstrom, who has worked for 16 years at Dakota Ridge School in Apple Valley. Finding qualified teachers to fill special education positions is a constant challenge, she said.

“We have reached out to other institutions over the years asking, how can we think differently about student teaching?” Engstrom said. “We just hit barrier after barrier. I’m so grateful for the connections to just be creative, be intuitive, and to make something that's really going to be lasting.”

Because participants already are working at the school, they’re going into Work and Learn with “eyes wide open,” she said, and the program doesn’t leave a hole in her teaching force because they’re able to learn on the job. As part of the Work and Learn program, Engstrom works alongside School of Education faculty as an adjunct professor, making sure to weave district practices into the curriculum.

When classes had to be moved online for the Work and Learn cohort, the transition was “seamless,” she said. It’s true, the pandemic didn’t slow things down; in fact, during the 2020-21 academic year, more than 100 new educators were taking part in the program. A leader in online education before COVID-19, the Department of Special Education was prepared to be flexible when needed.

“It felt like St. Thomas was a step ahead of the pandemic,” Engstrom said.

Brusnahan added that, because they have the capacity to do the program completely online, there’s the potential for the program to grow beyond Minnesota.

“For St. Thomas, it really comes down to our mission,” Brusnahan said. “It’s about making sure we’re advancing the common good. We prepare teachers who have values, who understand every life is important and believe every child can contribute. We are creating educators who are morally responsible leaders who are going into a field where they have to act critically and think wisely.”

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