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"Highly Qualified" Rule Is Subject of Complaint

Ohanian Comment: The highly qualified rule ends up being one more way to undermine public confidence in their public schools.

Superintendent Ronald Niemiec is confident Windham students are getting a good education -- no matter what the state says.

His small, rural Portage County district has the lowest percentage of teachers locally who meet the definition of ``highly qualified,'' according to data released last week by the Ohio Department of Education.

But Niemiec thinks there's more to being a good teacher than meeting a list of criteria.

``They don't take into consideration performance,'' said Niemiec, whose district had 83.7 percent of its teachers meet the guideline. ``All they look at is qualifications. Some people with qualifications can't teach.''

The district's biggest challenge is finding enough teachers who are certified to teach special education -- which appears to be one of the biggest hurdles for districts across the state to meet the ``highly qualified'' requirement. Other local districts citing this problem include Akron, Canton and Springfield.

``There's not enough kids coming out of the universities with special education certification,'' said Bernie Burchett, Akron's executive director of teaching and learning. ``Universities are not able to provide enough bodies to meet the need.''

This was the first year that Ohio released data on the percentage of highly qualified teachers in districts and schools. To meet this definition under the federal No Child Left Behind law, teachers must be state certified, have a bachelor's degree and demonstrate competence in the subjects they teach.

Statewide, 93.1 percent of teachers met this requirement. Among Ohio's eight urban districts, Akron had 95.1 percent reach this goal -- the third highest among the state's largest districts. Canton ranked fourth among urban districts, with 89 percent highly qualified.

Fifteen Akron-Canton districts reached 100 percent on the first try. Among them were Revere, Stow-Munroe Falls, Streetsboro, Fairless and Dalton.

``At this point, our goal is to make sure who we hire is highly qualified,'' said Shawna DeVoe, director of instruction and technology for Revere. ``We will do whatever we can to maintain this. We've been fortunate. We've had a good pool of applicants.''

Penalty for districts

Not meeting the highly qualified guideline carries a penalty -- at least for districts with schools that receive federal Title I funding, which is money targeted to low-income students.

Districts with teachers in Title I schools who don't meet the requirement must send letters to parents, explaining that their children's teacher isn't considered highly qualified.

Akron and Canton are among local districts expected to send these letters by late October. Last fall, Akron sent letters to the parents of six teachers, while Canton mailed them to the parents of two instructors. All were long-term substitutes.

Parents who receive these letters, however, don't have any recourse. Districts may consider -- but are not required to grant -- transfer requests. Local school leaders found parents to be understanding.

``We did not have any parents ask for students to be removed from classrooms,'' said Cathy Auckerman, Canton's assistant superintendent.

Under the No Child Left Behind law, all districts are required to have highly qualified teachers in every classroom by the end of the 2005-06 school year. The federal government has not decided on a penalty for failing to meet this deadline, though there is speculation the sanction could be funding cuts.

State education officials say some smaller districts have middle or high school teachers who are highly qualified in one subject but who are teaching another class in which they do not meet this requirement.

For example, teachers could be highly qualified in English but also in charge of a drama class they are not certified to teach.

``At a small rural high school, they would never be able to afford a drama teacher,'' said Lou Staffilino, executive director of the Ohio Department of Education's Center for the Teaching Profession. ``This may be the best bet they have.''

Special education

Another problem area for districts across Ohio is special education -- a challenging field with a high burnout rate. Many districts have struggled to find teachers certified in special education and have had to settle for those with other specialties.

``It's tough to find them,'' said Jerry Pecko, superintendent in Springfield, which the state shows having the lowest percentage of teachers meeting the guideline of any Summit County district, though school leaders question those data.

Springfield hired four teachers as substitutes last year for special education classes who had not yet passed an exam required for state certification. At the end of the year, two of the instructors had passed the test, making them highly qualified. The district did not retain the two teachers who did not pass.

From now on, Pecko said, the district is only going to hire teachers who have passed the state exam. It has notified local universities of this decision.

``It's not an easy situation to deal with,'' Pecko said of the highly qualified guideline. ``We are monitoring it carefully.''

Akron school leaders are trying to hire student teachers in the spring -- rather than the summer -- to fill expected vacancies in special education and specialty subjects such as art, music and foreign languages.

Burchett said those teachers are ``gobbled up pretty quick'' by local districts.

``It's almost like a supply-and-demand issue,'' she said.

In hopes of finding special education teachers, Windham contacted colleges, advertised in newspapers and sent notices to educational service centers.

``I know there are a lot of teachers out there, but they're not in the right areas,'' Niemiec said.

While some districts, such as Springfield and Windham, offer tuition reimbursement, many don't. That means teachers that need to take extra courses must foot the bill themselves.

Some cash-strapped districts are looking for creative ways to encourage teachers to get the training they need. In Canton, teachers have been offered free national board certification training. The district also has agreed to pick up part of the tab for a reading class at Kent State.

``We want all of our teachers to be highly qualified,'' Auckerman said. ``We are working with them individually. We want to make sure we reach 100 percent.''

Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or swarsmith@thebeaconjournal.com

— Stephanie Warsmith
Akron Beacon Journal


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