Only nine educational psychologists, behavioral specialist, and speech and occupational therapists are taking care of the needs of nearly 1000 children with disabilities in the CNMI Public School System, according to PSS special education program director/coordinator Suzanne Lizama.
She said 903 students with disabilities are currently enrolled in public schools on Saipan, Tinian, and Rota and the number of students with special needs continue to grow. The program, for instance, ended last school year with an enrollment of 840.
Lizama told Saipan Tribune that there are only nine specialists currently onboard the program, which is made up of four educational psychologists, one behavioral specialist, two speech therapists, and two occupational therapists.
Moreover, the program has only 35 highly qualified teachers and 80 teacher aides. With the figure, she disclosed that the highest teacher-to-students ratio is 1:10, but most schools have one special education teacher for every seven students with disabilities.
Although she described the current ratio as still “OK,” Lizama admitted that she wants to lessen the ratio by employing more highly qualified teachers in classroom than getting additional teacher aides, who are non-degree holders or lack needed certification for the program.
According to Lizama, the program needs at least six more specialists in the following areas-speech therapy, occupational therapy, and educational psychology.
She admitted that for many years, the program's biggest challenge is getting the right number of qualified specialists on island. As a result, she said the program is left with no choice but to be creative in finding ways to get the needed expertise for the students.
Lizama disclosed that this school year, a $200,000 contract was inked for two online specialists who will conduct “tele-therapy” sessions across all schools. This new method was tested four years ago and was proven successful in the CNMI. Because of these two new contracts, it brings to four the total number of speech therapists serving PSS students with disabilities.
Special education also has only two occupational therapists and is in the process of recruiting two more-one for babies and one for the school-aged population.
Two psychology experts are also needed by the program, to add to the existing four onboard. Special education has also only one behavioral specialist and is trying to find an additional expert to serve the increasing student population.
Lizama admitted that the current economic hardship and other uncertainties in the Commonwealth are also affecting PSS' recruitment efforts to get specialists from off-island. She admitted that the program also lost some personnel due to the same reason.
Because most program FTEs are funded by federal dollars amounting to $4.7 million this year, Lizama pointed out that “funding” for the needed specialists is not the problem, but finding the qualified personnel is.
Lizama disclosed that even the special education program receives federal funding for the needs of students with disabilities and personnel salaries. The local funding problem of PSS is also affecting the program's operations because they too are being serviced by PSS' bus transportation and salaries of teacher aides are also sourced from the local budget.