SACRAMENTO — A spike in the number of students diagnosed with autism is prompting changes in California schools. New requirements of special education teachers are sending some educators back to school.
In 2009, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing added an autism spectrum disorder authorization, meaning teachers who are credentialed to instruct students with mild to moderate disabilities must now undergo additional training before teaching autistic students. The added credential authorizations address a variety of disabilities aside from autism, like orthapedic impairement, emotional disturbance, traumatic brain injury and other conditions.
Teachers with credentials for moderate to severe disabilities were not asked to complete additional training.
While autism advocacy groups applaud the measure, some teachers say the added requirement is burdensome.
“It is very unmanagable; we do two jobs, but they’ve taken away our time, and now they’ve given me another class to teach and required me to go back to college,” Cora Heiser, a Twentynine Palms High School special education teacher, said Monday. “I’m gaining absolutely nothing from this except for keeping my same job.”
Heiser addressed the matter during a Morongo Unified School District Board of Education meeting Tuesday.
“I want to teach and I want to enjoy it. I don’t want to just survive it,” Heiser told the board.
The 16-year MUSD employee and seven-year teacher touted the success of her special education students, who she said took the California High School Exit Exam test for the first time this year. “Sixty-one percent of them passed … the special ed department went up 79 points,” Heiser said.
“Their intellect is the same; they just need a different style of teaching” she said in a phone interview Monday.
Despite having taught many high-performing autistic students, Heiser said she’s no longer considered qualified to teach those students. She and 34 other MUSD teachers across the Basin will have to find time to take college courses to beef up their credentials, in addition to teaching full time.
Heiser currently teaches five out of the six periods at Twentynine Palms High School and provides after-school and Saturday school instruction to many students. She noted she had more preparation time last year, with what’s called a den period, in addition to a prep period. This year, Heiser does not have a den period.
The administrators’ choice to eliminate the den period is her biggest frustration. “They knew we were going back to school and our time should’ve been respected,” Heiser said.
The school district is reimbursing teachers up to $2,500 for their extra coursework, according to Kathi Papp, Special Education Local Plan Area director for MUSD.
Papp said the autism requirement is one of several other credential supplemental authorizations recently issued by the Commission on Teacher Credentialing.
Special-needs students get tailored education
Despite being disgruntled by the new policy, Heiser admits the change will benefit the school district by increasing the pool of qualified teachers.
The new credential requirements supplement the district’s current practices, in which each special needs student receives an individualized education plan developed by a team of the student’s parents, teachers and administrators, Papp explained.
“At every level, students are assessed and progress is monitored,” she said. “It’s based on the needs of the student.”