Future Reflections                                                                                      Summer/Fall, 2002

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Parents, School District Struggle with Teacher Shortage Problem in Maryland

From the Editor: It’s no secret that there is a nationwide shortage of trained, certified teachers for blind children. In a recent federally-funded project document, the Council of Exceptional Children estimated that we need additional 5,000 teachers nationwide *(see the NPTP document on www.educ.ttu.edu/sowell). Not everyone agrees on this particular statistic, but no one disagrees with the assertion that we don’t have enough teachers.

However, this story is not about the statistics, nor is it discussion about a plan to solve the shortage, although we certainly care about these. The National Federation of the Blind has helped fund research projects aimed at collecting accurate data (an essential component of any plan to alleviate the shortage); and teacher training is high on the list of priorities of the NFB’s soon-to-be-completed National Research and Training Institute for the Blind.

This story is about the human face behind those statistics. It raises—and answers—some very important questions. What happens when a child goes a whole year without a Braille teacher? What can parents do? What can a school district do? What does the law require? For the Richmond family, it also turned out to be another answer to “Why the National Federation of the Blind?”

Jill Richmond and her husband live in Calvert County, Maryland. Their son, Aaron, is blind. They joined the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, a Division of the NFB, and started reading Future Reflections when Aaron was just a baby. The Washington Post newspaper articles, reprinted below, are reports about their own personal “teacher shortage” dilemma. Jill mailed these two articles to me, along with four others from the Washington Post, and six from their local paper, The Calvert Recorder. The articles spanned a nine-month time period, from December 19, 2001, to August 14, 2002. Along with the articles, Jill included a note of thanks and appreciation to the National Federation of the Blind. The note explains a part of this saga—the significant role played by the NFB—that the newspapers did not cover. Here is the essence of what Jill said:

“The NFB has been a tremendous and unique resource for me over the past 11 years. I absolutely cannot thank the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) enough for their most recent support in guiding me through the maze of trying to obtain an appropriate education for my son, Aaron. Specifically, we have just finished going through a due process hearing against Calvert County Public Schools, and we could never have accomplished this without the help of the National Federation of the Blind. Sharon Maneki [President of the NFB of Maryland] has been incredibly supportive; full of great ideas and an enormous amount of knowledge regarding the education of blind children. And it was at the NFB Convention in Philadelphia a couple of years ago that I met special education attorney, Mark B. Martin, who has handled our son’s case expertly. I would be glad to give something back to others in appreciation for the way that the NFB helped my son. I encourage any parents who have concerns and questions about this problem [teacher shortage] to contact me. I will be glad to talk with you.”

(NOTE: To contact Mrs. Jill Richmond, write to her c/o Future Reflections, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230.)

Here, now, is the Richmond’s story as reported by the Washington Post:

For Blind Students, Another Challenge

by Theola Labbe
Washington Post Staff Writer

Reprinted from the Washington Post, July 27, 2002.

The story was “Freckle Juice,” the Judy Blume tale of a young boy desperate to alter his looks. In a Calvert County fourth-grade classroom, the students broke up into small groups and read the book aloud. Except for Aaron Richmond. He sat by himself doing nothing.

Aaron is blind. He lacked a Braille version of the book and a teacher trained in Braille to help him read it. To his parents, Aaron lacked the opportunity to get an education. This year, they filed suit against the district.

“He should have been participating all day, every day, without exception,” said Aaron’s mother, Jill Richmond. “With a vision teacher, he would have.” Aaron, an 11-year-old who previously earned A’s and B’s in school, went without a vision teacher for his entire fourth-grade year when the district could not find one. The difference was stark. He was without Braille reading textbooks for two months because no one placed the special order over the summer. He was excluded from activities such as computer lab and that hallmark of a grade school education, the science project. He ended the school year with near-failing grades.

The root of the problem, a critical shortage of vision teachers, has left virtually no school district in the Washington area and beyond untouched. Prince George’s County is looking for a vision teacher and went to a Toronto conference this month to recruit. There are two openings in Prince William County. Montgomery County filled one post last fall by getting a teacher to switch positions. Then, another teacher announced she was quitting and administrators are back to where they started.

“What if a school district said, ‘Oh well, we just can’t provide service to Chinese children or African American children’? No one would tolerate that,” said Mark Richert, executive director of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind. “But because it’s a child with a disability, it’s not seen as a civil rights issue, it’s seen as charity.”

Robin Welsh, Calvert’s director of special education, said the district made a good-faith effort. “We maintain that we did everything possible to try and find a teacher,” she said. A judge will rule in Aaron’s case in August.

As difficult as Aaron’s plight may have been, he is coming of age in a challenging time for blind children who attend public schools. The inclusion movement over the past decade has successfully pushed disabled children such as Aaron into mainstream classrooms. Yet spots for special education teachers, particularly those with knowledge of Braille and other techniques for helping the visually impaired, remain the hardest vacancies to fill.

Teachers for the blind make up a small part of the special education pool—in Maryland, for example, 100 of the state’s 7,392 special education teachers—and they are aging and retiring. At the same time, the number of university programs that train vision teachers has shrunk to just 30. This year, Michigan State University voted to eliminate its vision teacher-training program after a lengthy, emotional debate. “These are not easy decisions,” said Lou Anne Simon, the school’s provost and vice president of academic affairs.

Elaine Sveen, superintendent of the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind—which has two vacancies—said: “This shortage is a critical crisis. We need certified teachers.”

Aaron will enter fifth grade this fall without a vision teacher—though the district has hired someone who will start in January. To help Aaron make up for what he missed last year, including work with a teacher to review his Braille writing for spelling and capitalization errors or help him edit his writing, Calvert is paying for him to be tutored this summer by a vision teacher from Anne Arundel County. It’s a singular situation foreign to his school-age friends. “They don’t really understand what it means to be blind,” Aaron said.

Of the three Southern Maryland counties, Calvert’s rural tranquillity and high-achieving schools increasingly have made it a destination for military families and suburbanites. Even after the growth, which has required the school system to use temporary classrooms at nearly all 12 elementary schools, there are just 20 children in the 15,000-student district who are blind or have severely impaired vision.

Aaron—a talkative, outgoing boy who holds an orange belt in tae kwon do—likes to read biographies and runs around the playground with the other children at recess. Born with Peter’s Plus syndrome, Aaron has had seven cornea transplants to improve his vision, the first when he was seven weeks old. He wears thick glasses with curved lenses. His vision is 20/800 in his left eye and 20/1,000 in his right eye. He can recognize colors and large shapes at close range. He reads and writes exclusively in Braille.

Aaron had worked with the same vision teacher since kindergarten. He sat alongside students without disabilities and participated in a regular class with the assistance of the county’s only vision teacher. The teacher also pulled Aaron out of class for one-on-one sessions several times a week. But after 12 years in which the teacher saw both her student caseload and responsibility grow, she resigned in April 2001. Calvert County advertised in trade journals and national publications and interviewed several candidates but struggled to find a teacher. In February, the Richmonds filed suit.

The severity of the vision teacher shortage has bubbled quietly for years because blindness is a low-incidence disability. Experts in the field differ on statistics: The American Foundation for the Blind counts about 93,600 schoolchildren who are blind or visually impaired, while federal education statistics put the count at about 26,000.

Recruiting teachers can be hardest for remote, rural areas such as Calvert. “Unless somebody has come from that area, is trained, and goes back to that area, it’s usually not easy to provide the necessary specialist in the more rural areas,” said Lucy Hession, of the division of special education in the Maryland Department of Education.

The Richmonds have lived in Port Republic for five years, an eclectic Southern Maryland community made up of sprawling farms, estate homes with built-in swimming pools and houses with a view of the Chesapeake Bay. The Richmonds settled there, even though Kyle Richmond works in St. Mary’s County at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, because they had heard good things about the Calvert schools.

“When we moved here, everything was fine, but I did have concerns that they had one teacher. It rose in my mind, what if she quits?” Jill Richmond said. Some have questioned her stick-to-her guns strategy. Why not move, or send Aaron to the Maryland School for the Blind?

Officials say the school concentrates on children who have severe disabilities in addition to blindness, which does not apply to Aaron. As for moving, Jill Richmond said special education services at public schools are too tenuous to try your luck at a succession of districts.

“Every time you have a problem like this, if you move, a year later someone could quit and then everything is horrible,” she said. “We want to get the problem resolved, not just for our son, but for all the vision students.” The hearings in the case lasted through the spring. The school district admitted before a judge that not all of Aaron’s books were ready, and that he was taught by several instructional assistants or aides, never by a certified vision teacher. Jill Richmond was the only witness to testify on behalf of her son. She said he was in dire need of a vision teacher to lift his grades and teach him how to use equipment such as the software that would allow him to access the Internet independently. The lawsuit also demands that the school district pay for tutoring and technology to assist Aaron.

The teacher arriving in January is a recent graduate from Illinois, lured in part by the $10,000 singing bonus, school officials said. But a search continues, Superintendent James R. Hook said. The district hopes to hire another teacher to begin work in September.

[Editor’s Note: A month later, the judge’s decision in the Richmond case was announced. The Washington Post followed up on the story with one last article:]

Special-Ed Law Violated, Judge Rules

by Theola Labbe
Washington Post Staff Writer

Reprinted from the Washington Post,
Friday, August 9, 2002.

The Calvert County school system violated federal law when it failed to provide a blind student with a certified vision teacher last year, a state administrative law judge has ruled.

Aaron Richmond
Aaron Richmond

In his 38-page decision, Judge William C. Herzing found that without a teacher trained in Braille, 11-year-old Aaron Richmond fell behind in fourth grade and was denied a “free and appropriate public education,” as required by the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. The school district’s efforts to find a vision teacher amid a national shortage did not excuse it, Herzing ruled in a lawsuit filed by Aaron’s parents.

“While there is no doubt [the district] faced difficult circumstances regarding the availability of vision teachers, and made extensive efforts to find a replacement…the child was denied a free and appropriate education,” he wrote in a decision Monday. Herzing also determined that the school system failed to give Aaron all the technology he needed in third grade, but he agreed with the district that Aaron received Braille versions of his textbooks and appropriate technology last school year.

Superintendent James Hook said the district never disputed that it needed to hire a vision teacher. “We were wrong because we didn’t have one, but we were trying to do everything that we could,” Hook said.

After Aaron’s parents, Jill and Kyle Richmond of Port Republic, filed their lawsuit in February, the district offered a $10,000 signing bonus to recruit a certified teacher for blind and visually impaired students. A teacher was hired last month and will start in January. Hook said the district is searching for a second teacher to work with the 20 visually impaired students in Calvert County’s public schools. Under the judge’s ruling, the district will be required to pay for a tutor to help Aaron make up for missed schoolwork. Robin Welsh, the district’s director of special education, called the decision
“favorable.”

The Richmonds viewed it as a victory. Their attorney, Mark Martin of Baltimore, said the district’s inability to provide Aaron with a teacher was at the heart of the lawsuit.

“You always want to prevail on every issue. However, the one thing that dominates Aaron’s case is the need for 16.5 hours of service a week from a teacher of the visually impaired,” he said.<

Jill Richmond agreed. “Aaron needed a Braille teacher,” she said. “Should the county have to hire a teacher of the visually impaired? You can see, yes, we won.”

Mark Richert, executive director of the Alexandria-based Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind, said parents and school districts can learn from this decision.

“Schools, with a good amount of effort, may stand a better chance of finding a teacher,” he said. “Parents can fight to get a specialized teacher for their kids—they don’t have to accept the status quo.”

*Funded by a federal grant, the mission of the National Plan for Training Personnel to Serve Children with Blindness and Low Vision (NPTP) project was “To alleviate the critical shortage of personnel who provide essential services to children with blindness and low vision in educational settings.…”

No one is quite sure just how many teachers we are short, but the NPTP document estimates, based upon a recommended caseload of 8 students to one teacher, that we need an additional 5,000 teachers nationwide. The current average caseload, according to data gathered by the NPTP project, is 14 students to 1 teacher of the visually impaired and 72 students for every Orientation and Mobility (O&M) specialist. These figures are based upon NPTP’s estimate of 93,600 “students with educationally significant visual impairment in special education,” 6,700 full-time teachers, and 1,300 O&M instructors.

To round out the statistical picture, NPTP also reported on research data which indicates that, in 1998-1999, 225 university students received a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree as teachers of the visually impaired, orientation and mobility specialists, or both.

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