Empowering our SPED Leaders: DC’s model Special Education Leadership Coaching Cohort

Across the country, schools are scrambling to fill vacancies. Many schools have tried incentives such as bonuses and other perks, sadly to no avail. These problems with retaining staff have existed for years but have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and overall burnout – particularly when it comes to special educators. Special education staffing has a pipeline problem as well as a retention problem. According to a recent article in The 74 Million, teaching candidates have reported a “dearth of incentives” for new teachers to work instructing children with disabilities and a “chronic lack of support” to retain teachers in those positions. Depending on their jurisdiction, special educators are required “to go above and beyond the average classroom teacher— earn more college credits, take on more student debt, and perform more work — while getting the same or fewer resources.” How can we expect special educators to instruct and advocate for our most vulnerable students when they feel undervalued and overworked?

As an organization made up of former special educators, we uniquely understand the challenges that face this underappreciated workforce and the critical role these educators play in improving outcomes for students with disabilities within the District of Columbia. To ensure our member schools had a network of support for their special education staff, the Co-op launched our Special Educator Leadership Coaching Cohort. This specific focus on special educators does not exist within the District of Columbia, either at the traditional public or charter level. In our inaugural year, we reached out to our expansive membership for initial interest. The response was overwhelming, to say the least!

In the 21-22 school year, 14 Local Education Agencies (LEAs) from across the city prioritized the development of their special education leaders by joining the inaugural cohort. While the cohort was diverse in terms of backgrounds and ages, the thread of commonality of experience quickly appeared. These amazing special education leaders were experienced, so we were able to dive into the Appreciative Inquiry (AI) framework for change management and use it to drive organizational growth. Amita Lathigra, a Program Quality Specialist at the Co-op, led the cohort, conducting both group and one-on-one coaching sessions that provided a safe space for special education leaders to discuss the day-to-day challenges of their roles. These sessions were invaluable to the leaders, helping to retain several individuals who had contemplated leaving the special education field altogether because of burnout. During the year-long program, leaders engaged in programmatic and schematic work, including writing proposals for expanding their schools’ services for students, 3-5 year program growth plans, and professional development plans for increasing the expertise of – and retaining – their staff. It was beyond gratifying to see that the Co-op’s investment in our seasoned special education leaders made a difference – two leaders received promotions to higher-level positions as a result of the cohort, and many more were successful at advocating for their program needs.

A key feature and driver of the success of this program was the involvement of each LEA’s Executive Director or Head of School. Research shows that LEA school leader involvement is a core component of any coaching program. We are proud to have this collaborative element at the core of our cohort experience, setting us apart from other coaching programs offered in the District of Columbia. Here’s what Chelsea Kirk, executive director of Goodwill Excel PCS, had to say about the program: “It has been a wonderful experience to partner with the Special Education Co-op through their coaching program with SPED Leaders. The opportunity to engage critically with a group of leaders to tackle problems with a solution-oriented mindset has resulted in positive impacts on our school community. Through Amita’s work with our team members, I have seen our systems and processes improve. Our SPED Leader has been introduced to resources that have positively impacted our community and students. I watched our SPED Leader roll out the vision for these systems and processes to our various stakeholders. We are identifying gaps and solutions to serve our students and our community better.” Receiving similar exuberant feedback from other LEA leaders further confirmed how needed this coaching cohort was to our schools throughout the city.

We have just started our second Special Educator Leadership Coaching Cohort, with 7 LEAs participating this year, representing multiple wards of the city. After just one session, the enthusiasm from these special educators is extremely high! Everyone is committed to growth, especially with a focus on personal leadership and programmatic goals they’d like to achieve this year. We are so excited to see what happens this year and look forward to sharing opportunities for our community to partner with and celebrate these dedicated educators. Despite the overall national climate, the DC Special Education Cooperative is committed to empowering and supporting our special educators through these tough times!

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