Gary Brysacz says he has the most important qualifications it takes to teach special education: he's a grandfather, a former salesman for an oil company, and he has a college degree in health and physical education.
“It's a grace or a blessing. If you have the talent to work with the children with special needs you ought to use it,” Mr. Brysacz said.
Even though Mr. Brysacz has little formal training and is not properly certified by the state in special education, Toledo Public Schools has put the long-term substitute teacher in charge of special education classes in each of the last four years.
School district administrators say there is a crisis in the availability of special-education teachers - so much that state educators are working on a plan to establish alternative or emergency credentials.
At least 35 other special-education teachers lack proper credentials in the Toledo city schools. Some are trained in business administration, political science, even drama and art. A few have formal training in educating the handicapped or elementary education but don't qualify for a full-time teaching contract for various reasons.
In Cleveland Public Schools, the situation is worse. That district has 132 long-term substitutes without the proper certification and 50 more who are enrolled in a special education certification program at Cleveland State University.
Cincinnati has 63 uncertified special-education teachers. School district officials there said almost all of those teachers are enrolled in a special-education program at the University of Cincinnati.
Although the state Department of Education's certification office has not ruled on the issue, its opinion in one case involving a long-term substitute teacher who was not certified in special education was clear: only properly certified teachers may supervise a special-education class.
The state is investigating the credentials of uncertified teachers in Toledo and Cleveland and will likely propose some kind of plan, a spokeswoman for the state education department said.
Toledo Superintendent Eugene Sanders said he wants to solve the problem, but he said an order to replace uncertified staff would be difficult to carry out.
“Any ruling other than an attempt to work with us would be ill-advised,” Dr. Sanders said.
In each case, the long-term substitutes are teaching a class of eight to 15 children who have been diagnosed as having disabilities, either in learning ability, behavior, or in physical condition - or all three.
A Blade review of personnel files for 38 uncertified special-education teachers in Toledo shows 26 are certified only to substitute teach at the high school level, and then only for certain courses. In the last two weeks, two of those uncertified teachers have been replaced with certified teachers.
Seven substitutes have elementary education or “education of the handicapped” certificates but have an inactive license, have not passed the state teacher test, or didn't make the grade as a contract teacher.
Toledo's critical shortage of special education teachers came to light last month when the state Department of Education upheld a Toledo parent's complaint that her son's long-term substitute teacher at Spring Elementary School did not meet state certification requirements.
Toledo Public Schools has been quietly plugging holes in its special-education system with uncertified teachers for years.
A national analysis by the American Association for Employment in Education found that of eight teaching specialties with “considerable shortage,” special education specialties account for six of them. Nationally, more than 36,000 special education teachers are needed.
“Among people who go into special education, especially in the urban areas, there's a greater turnover rate,” said Dr. Ellen Williams, the interim dean of education and human development at Bowling Green State University. “We lose close to a third of teachers in the first three years. If you add that to the urban setting, close to 50 percent of new teachers in urban areas turn over.”
Most of Toledo's uncertified special-education classrooms are in lower-income high school areas. The Woodward area has the most with 10, followed by eight in the Scott area and six in Libbey. The Waite area has four, Rogers has three, and Start has two. The Bowsher area has three uncertified long-term substitute teachers in special education - but two are at Medical College of Ohio, a districtwide setting for psychiatric needs.
Some long-term substitutes are doing an excellent job, according to Thom Billau, the director of special education for Toledo Public Schools.
“Many do better sometimes than people with certification. Some have had the special-education course work but were not able to pass the [state] teachers test, but they've done the student teaching successfully, passed the courses at the university,” Mr. Billau said.
On the other hand, he acknowledged, “there are some that are just ambulatory people.”
In one case in East Toledo, a long-term substitute is assigned to a special-education classroom despite a series of negative evaluations that prevented her from getting a teaching contract with the district in 1991.
The teacher's personnel file indicates that the personnel office has been asked not to reassign her to Raymer, Glenwood, and Cherry elementary schools and Rogers High School.
However, that teacher's case is the exception. Reviews of the 37 other personnel files showed positive evaluations.
Gary Brysacz doesn't have certification as a special education teacher, but he has the confidence of his supervisors.
It would be difficult to win more plaudits for one's work than does Mr. Brysacz, 62.
“Gary has done an excellent job with this class,” Sharon Ulrich, then principal of McKinley Elementary School, wrote in 1998.
Assigned to the Medical College of Ohio, he supervises a class of eight severe behavioral handicapped children ages 11 and 12.
Mr. Brysacz believes he has a special grace needed to help such children - nurtured by his life experiences: being married to a woman who was a paraprofessional in a special-education classroom until her retirement, having grandchildren, and having some work experience in a psychiatric hospital and an orphanage.
He received a degree from the University of Dayton to teach physical and health education in 1968. But with a wife and two daughters to support, he could not afford to teach, so he went into sales. He retired from Sun Oil Co. in 1995 and began working for Toledo Public Schools as a daily substitute teacher that year.
“I take this job very seriously,” Mr. Brysacz said. He said certified teachers and the principals have always been willing to provide him with assistance.
“You have to be willing to be patient, be willing to accept the child for what the child is, and if the things that occur are uncontrollable you have to be able to accept that. In severe behavior [handicapped], you have to be able to take a punch,” Mr. Brysacz said.
He said the legislature should pass a law giving credit for experience and should establish a course regimen that could be accomplished taking part-time courses.
John Poon, 44, a long-term substitute in a class for developmentally delayed students at Rogers High, agreed.
As a reserve military policeman with the Ohio Army National Guard, Mr. Poon has been substitute teaching since 1990. He said the fact that a long-term substitute can be replaced as soon as a certified teacher comes along makes him “uncomfortable,” but he feels confident in the classroom.
“I feel I've been in this system long enough. I think I've paid my dues,” said Mr. Poon, a 1982 graduate in political science from Bowling Green State University.
Over the years, Toledo has made efforts to solve its teacher shortage. For the last four years, a federal grant has allowed BGSU to offer scholarships to a handful of Toledo paraprofessionals and teachers to become certified in special education.
Thomas Stephens, the executive director of School Study Council of Ohio, now working on a contract with the state Department of Education on the teacher shortage, said the education colleges do not counsel enough students to go into the most needed specialties. The teacher-certification programs are too complicated and time-consuming, he said.
“Frankly, salaries are not commensurate with the responsibilities,” Mr. Stephens said. “They are no longer viewed as an attractive career."
College of education officials say they cannot force education students into special education. Nor do they control the course requirements for a special-education degree.
An education degree at UT or BGSU takes nine semesters if a student sticks to the recommended course schedule. A person seeking a career change would face 15 to 20 college courses to earn a bachelor's degree in special education.
Dr. Charlene Czerniak, interim dean for special education at the University of Toledo, said the course of study is set to meet accrediting standards, and the accrediting standards are determined largely by the Council for Exceptional Children, a national organization that advocates for “historically underserved individuals with exceptionalities.”
Some educators in the field feel the number of courses needed for certification is excessive.But advocates of children with special needs say special education should be treated as no less rigorous a specialty than other areas of teaching.
“I don't think the certification is too demanding,” said Sue Hetrick, an advocate for disabled children with the Ability Center of Toledo.
The teacher supply crisis is prompting a new look at alternative licensure. Ohio already offers a quicker certification process in areas such as math and physics to candidates with related experience.
Ohio must begin looking at emergency credentialing, said Dr. William McInerny, a professor of special education at UT.
“There is enough interest and need that there's likely to be some discussion” about alternative licensure, Dr. McInerny said.