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Dossett studies priorities for teacher certification scholarships

In the midst of a historic teacher shortage, further crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic, Sen. Jo Anna Dossett, D-Tulsa, hosted an interim study Tuesday looking into prioritizing teacher certification scholarships for English as a second language (ESL) and special education teachers.

Dossett, who spent 15 years in the classroom before being elected to the Senate, said she knows first-hand the struggles school districts are having in finding and retaining teachers, but specifically in the ESL and special-ed fields.

“The Office of Educational Quality and Accountability (OEQA) maintains a $60,000 scholarship fund for teacher certifications each year, and 100 applicants are chosen to receive these funds to apply towards the cost of certification exams,” Dossett said. “Through this study, we found that very few prospective ESL and special education teachers are applying for these scholarships. As student needs in theses specialized areas increase, we need to ensure the specialized teachers are in place to meet them. ”

Dana Ezell, chief human resources officer for Jenks Public Schools, said the demographics at Jenks have changed wildly over the past 30 years. In 1990, the school was 90% white. In 2020, this number dropped to 50%, while the percentage of Asian, African American, American Indian and Hispanic students drastically increased. The school district hosts refugee students and families from Mynamar, so the second most common spoken language is Zomi dialect, and the need for ESL educators is high.

She also said of the roughly 12,500 students in the district, more than 20% of these need special education services. About 350 of these students require both ESL and special education services. At the same time, the special education teacher pool has decreased. In July 2012, the district had 12 special education applicants. This past July, only three applications were received. Ezell said districts are becoming unwilling to let teachers out of their contracts if they want to change schools due to the high need for these educators and extremely low applicant pool.

Dr. Laura Grisso, executive director of language and cultural services for Tulsa Public Schools, said the district is comprised of 36% multilingual learners. Since 2011, ESL teaching positions have increased by 186%.  

“Jenks’ and Tulsa’s situations are not unique. Recruiting and retaining qualified educators is an issue for districts across the state – especially in ESL and special education fields,” Dossett said. “We need to be intentional about attracting more teacher candidates to these specialized areas.”

Dan Ruhl, State Department of Education (SDE) executive director of English language proficiency, and Todd Loftin, SDE deputy superintendent of special education services, shared the United States Department of Education has listed both ESL and special education as a teacher shortage area for the 2021-2022 school year. This federal designation allows the state to receive federal funding to enhance the educator talent pool, including financial aid programs to tap into the talent pipeline.

“We need to tap into all of our resources available – both state and federal – to ensure a quality teacher pipeline is stable in our state,” Dossett said. “I look forward to exploring this issue further, including legislative, agency, and local solutions.”

Other study presenters included Michelle Exstrom, National Council of State Legislatures education director; Renee Launey-Rodolf, OEQA director; and Jennifer Gambrell, OEQA assistant director.