University of St. Thomas to recruit and train hundreds of new elementary, special education teachers

University of St. Thomas to recruit and train hundreds of new elementary, special education teachers

University of St. Thomas to recruit and train hundreds of new elementary, special education teachers

The University of St. Thomas plans to recruit and train hundreds of new elementary and special education teachers over the next few years with the help of new federal funding.

“There has always been a shortage in special education,” said Dr. Shelley Neilsen Gatti, who worked as a special education teacher for many years and is now an associate professor of special education at the University of St. Thomas.

The state’s most recent job vacancy survey shows 1,083 openings in various special education teacher positions, from preschool to secondary levels, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

School districts across Minnesota report that the three most difficult-to-fill positions right now are all in special education, in the licensure areas of Autism Spectrum Disorder, Emotional Behavioral Disorder, and Learning Disabilities, according to the 2023 report from the Minnesota Professional Educator and Licensing Standards Board.

“School’s starting in a couple of weeks, and we still don’t have teachers assigned to the classrooms,” said Deeqaifrah Hussein, executive director of special education at Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS).

Nearly 18% of students at MPS receive special education services. 

“There is a significant shortage of teachers. More and more teachers are leaving the special education classroom. Now, we are looking at some of the programs and trying to combine programs,” Hussein said. 

She says MPS is actively recruiting new teachers and hopes new efforts, like the one at the University of St. Thomas, will eventually help fill some of the gaps.

“One of the things we’ve tried to do is look at, what are the barriers that are impacting individuals to become teachers?” Neilsen Gatti said. “What we know is there are lots of individuals who are working in these school districts, not as licensed staff but working as teaching assistants or in other roles, and we want to provide opportunities for those individuals to become licensed teachers because they’ve already shown a commitment to their communities.”

Gatti says some of those aspiring teachers face financial hardships in pursuing a teaching degree.

St. Thomas has now received a $6.8 million federal SEED (Supporting Effective Educator Development) grant to help expand access to education. 

It will allow them to offer $10,000 and $20,000 scholarships to 120 graduate-level students each year for the next three years. In addition, the grant will cover tuition and other costs for eight Dougherty Family College students pursuing an associate degree who express an early interest in teaching.

The two-year program from Dougherty Family College is geared toward underserved populations, communities of color, and first-generation college students. 

“They won’t have as many school loans, and that has ongoing impact for their whole lives,” Gatti said. 

The grant money will also cover costs for some undergraduate students who are completing unpaid internships in the teaching field. 

“We know that effective teachers, no matter what, impact all of us impacts, every aspect of our community,” Gatti noted, adding, “our new grant that starts October 1, and will allow us to take those barriers to becoming teachers and reduce them even more.”

To learn more about the new SEED grant, click here.