During a recent class at the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children in Oakland, a teacher led six students in a semi-circle as they sang the alphabet song. Behind almost every student was another educator.
Some para-educators, known as teachers’ aides, helped keep students on task, other orientation and mobility specialists were there to focus on those skills. The school educates 200 students and it’s typical to have a student-teacher ration of 1-to-1.
Last year, Pennsylvania issued only 15 new certificates for teachers of the visually impaired. The state’s department of education considers it a shortage area because that number has fluctuated over the years, but has consistently remained low.
Heidi Ondek, the superintendent of the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children, said the chronic shortages create competition among schools.
“Our plight is a little different than a typical public school's, where they're facing shortages in general -- we're harder hit by the shortage because of the specialties that we need,” she said.
Those teachers are trained in braille instruction, orientation and mobility for students with visual impairments.
Barb Cunningham, the school’s director of employee relations, said because fully certified Teachers of the Visually Impaired have consistently been hard to come by, in recent years the school has received emergency permits from the state to employ teachers who are going back to school for the specialized certification.
The school hosted two career fairs Wednesday because that shortage is expected to get worse because of a round of retirements at the end of the year. Leaders are also recruiting within schools.
“We have more vacancies this year than we've had in a number of years," Ondek said. "So we've anticipated it could happen. And so we we're trying to get earlier in in the process and be very proactive in recruiting."
She said she worries that the shortage could have long-term consequences and could put students at risk.
Overall, the number of new educators in the state is shrinking. According to the department of education, since 1996, the number of undergraduate education majors in Pennsylvania has declined 55 percent, while the number of newly-issued in-state teaching certificates issued dropped by 71 percent between 2009 and 2017.