Montgomery County Public Schools continues to struggle with staffing special education positions across the district. Some parents say the teacher shortages and related breakdowns in communication are cause for serious concern.
“It’s just really discouraging because you constantly hear, ‘MCPS is the best, MCPS is the best.’ And if this is the best, what is everyone else getting?” said the parent of a Sligo Creek Elementary School kindergartener receiving special education services. The parent asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from her child’s school.
On Sept. 8, Sligo Creek families received an email from Principal Stephanie Nesmith informing them of two special education teacher vacancies at the school. According to several Sligo Creek parents as well as MCPS spokesperson Chris Cram, those two vacancies represent the only two full-time special education positions at the school—meaning Sligo Creek is currently left without any special education teachers.
“We are working closely with members of the MCPS Department of Special Education Services to provide case management for students, while members of Sligo Creek staff will implement the IEPs,” Nesmith wrote.
There remain 48 open full-time special educator positions across the school district as of Sept. 18—representing nearly half of the 113 total full-time teaching positions, according to Cram.
The district employs 1,955 full-time special education teachers, Cram said. That number includes teachers at all MCPS schools as well as at several schools designed as solely special education environments, such as Rockville’s Carl Sandburg Learning Center and Silver Spring’s Stephen Knolls School.
Approximately 12% of all MCPS students received special education services as of the 2021-22 school year, the most recent publicly available data on the MCPS website.
In an email to MoCo360, Cram acknowledged that special education has always been a “more challenging position” to fill.
“These are high-level educators with specialized skills that require a great deal of training. The work can be sometimes challenging while also extremely rewarding,” he wrote.
According to Cram, the central office team is “very intentional” when reaching out to fill special education job openings.
“MCPS recruitment involves longstanding partnerships with high education institutions from Maryland, the country and even places such as Puerto Rico,” he wrote. “Special education programs in these institutions are a direct focus as are special educators who receive our recruitments messages via platforms such as LinkedIn.”
An Individualized Education Program, or IEPs, is a legal document outlining a specific student’s special education needs and required support services. It’s created and monitored by a team including the student’s caregivers, school district personnel and special education experts.
The Sligo Creek administration is “actively working” to fill the positions with the help of central office, and the school will “maintain open lines of communication with families to keep you informed throughout this hiring process,” Nesmith wrote.
Open communication is something the anonymous parent said has been absent at Sligo Creek stating communicating with staff has been like speaking into “a black hole.” She said she’s been provided with no proof that her son is receiving any of his required services, and she’s not provided with any weekly or monthly logs recording the times providers see him.
“All I want is open communication about what’s happening with him during the day,” she said. “It feels like I’m going to a battle with my kid’s school, and it’s discouraging to feel that way.”
Silver Spring resident Ketayoun Darvich-Kodjouri’s daughter, now in high school, attended Sligo Creek from kindergarten through second grade. Darvich-Kodjouri described the school system as “stretched and under-resourced” and said parents such as herself are often left to navigate the complicated world of IEPs and special education services for themselves.
“I had to learn the hard way that IEPs are legally binding documents,” Darvich-Kodjouri said. “When the school is out of compliance and a certain amount of time goes by, you get compensatory services. When you ask for a meeting and put it in writing, the school has a set amount of time to respond. These are basic sets of protections, and parents just really have no clue. The school district could do a much better job educating parents about their rights.”
Asked to respond to concerns about lack of communication in special education, Cram directed MoCo360 to the special education portion of the MCPS website as well as to a four-page 2016 resource on IEPs from the State Department of Education.
“You can find the information need[ed] here,” he wrote.
Cram said he confirmed with the district’s special education office that they are supporting Sligo Creek to ensure students’ IEPs are fulfilled and said school leaders are “fully aware these positions need to be filled as soon as possible.
“Families should have confidence that the district will ensure their child’s services are being provided,” Cram wrote.
Having guided her daughter through nine years of school as an MCPS special education student, Darvich-Kodjouri said she’s found that the best resource for parents to help them advocate for their students is each other. She mentioned that there are several parent-run groups on social media where families can share resources and ask questions.
“The most helpful thing you can do is connect with other parents who have already figured out how to navigate the system,” Darvich-Kodjouri said. “That’s where I’ve gotten the most information and support in really trying to figure out the bureaucracy. Parent education doesn’t really happen from the school district, so you have to get it from outside.”