Saturday, June 14, 2008

Not enough teachers for the visually impaired

Francis Howell School District teacher Terri Bales has been instructing blind and visually impaired students for nearly 25 years.The Dallas native - whose accent sounds like a smile - said it has always been difficult to find instructors in her field.

After a three-month search, the Francis Howell district was able to add another teacher for the blind and visually impaired to its staff."I think that's fast. If you were in a rural area I think it would take three years," Bales said.The need for teachers certified to teach the visually impaired has increased for a variety of reasons, and St. Charles County districts are adapting to that rising need.


Kevin Hollinger is a teacher for the visually impaired certified in orientation and mobility at Francis Howell.Hollinger teaches braille, and instructs blind students to move safely and independently.

Hollinger said baby boomers are retiring from the profession in droves as more children are born with visual impairments.More premature babies are surviving than ever before, but many with cortical visual impairments resulting from brain damage.Cortical visual impairments can result from lack of oxygen at birth or infection, according to the American Foundation for the Blind.The low incidence of blindness in the disabled community is another contributor, Hollinger said, many teachers being drawn to areas where the need appears to be greater.

Karen Carl has been an instructor with the Fort Zumwalt School District for 15 years and is thankful the district hired another instructor to take on part of her case load."I finally have help this year, so we are fine," Carl said.Rural school districts have a greater difficulty finding teachers, Carl said.To put the shortage in perspective, Carl said providing five braille-reading students of varying ages with adequate instruction is challenging.

Carl said that in rural areas sometimes a single teacher covers several counties.Hollinger said 73 teachers in Missouri belong to the professional organization for educators of the blind and visually impaired.Hollinger estimated there are only about 100 instructors for the blind in the entire state."By law, the district has to provide (instruction for the blind), and I don't know how they're doing it in some cases," Bales said.

Recently, more online courses have been offered for teachers who want to become certified to teach blind and low-vision students, Bales said.Oftentimes, the online courses don't prepare instructors comprehensively, Bales said.Fort Zumwalt and Francis Howell are making strides to make sure blind and visually impaired students aren't left behind.


Fort Zumwalt Deputy Superintendent Patty Corum said the district's Grow Your Own Teacher program can be tailored to recruit teachers interested in educating the visually impaired.The Grow Your Own Teacher program is a scholarship spearheaded by Corum that pays college tuition for students who elect to come back and teach "high need" subjects for the district.

At Francis Howell, which has the largest program for blind and visually impaired students in St. Charles County, Bales said the staff has used creativity to meet the challenges in staffing the department.Hollinger's undergraduate degree was in a different field, but with direction from Bales and the director of special education at Francis Howell, Hollinger decided to become certified to teach the visually impaired.

Hollinger earned dual certification at limited cost by taking advantage of several programs, one at Western Michigan University and another at Missouri State University with a scholarship called Project Diverse.Julie Ituarte, instructor with Project Diverse at Missouri State, said only eight applicants of upwards of 60 who apply for the scholarship program designed to instruct teachers for the visually impaired can be accepted."We were given funding to teach 32 students and we just excepted our last eight people on the grant," Ituarte said.

The school is reapplying for another grant to extend the program, but for now, the future of the scholarship, which has trained teachers from Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma, is unknown.A representative with the Wentzville School District could not be reached for comment on this story.Bales said the small size of the blind and visually impaired community offers teachers a unique opportunity educators normally don't get.Bales said she's been able to build a personal relationship with students from grade school through high school."There's a love," Bales said. "It's a great field. I wish more people would go into it."


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