Bedford and Billerica’s Nashoba Learning Group Aides in Autism Education

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With an increase in autism diagnosis, the state is seeing a rising need for special education teachers. Conversely, the retention rate for special education teachers working for private organizations is low. According to statistics provided from the Massachusetts Association of 766 Approved Schools, 38 percent of teachers at such institutions quit their jobs each year.

Nashoba Learning Group in Bedford has managed however, to overcome many of the obstacles facing other Chapter 766-approved schools. The retention rate for staff at Nashoba Learning Group is 85 percent, much higher than the state-wide average of 62 percent.

Chapter 766-approved schools are authorized under state law to provide education to publicly funded students with severe and complex disabilities. Although the Nashoba Learning Group is a private organization, almost all of their students are publicly funded pupils who attend because their public school district cannot provide reasonable accommodations. There are 86 such schools in the state.

Liz Martineau, who serves as the president of the school and a Concord native founded Nashoba Learning Group in 2002 in Westford before moving to Bedford in 2008. The school specializes in students with intensive forms of Autism, drawing over 100 students from more than 50 cities and towns at their locations in Bedford and Billerica.

A common problem with staffing is that many teachers can earn more money working in the public schools. The average salary for a teacher at a 766-approved school is $50,189 while the state-wide average at a public school is $74,703.

“We work to pay our staff competitive salary, but a staff member with the right credentials could earn more in the public schools,” Martineau said.

The challenge at a school like the Nashoba Learning Group however, extends beyond just the financial needs. Working with children afflicted with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) typically involves operating in stressful situations and the burnout rate is very high.

“Getting staff in the door that have the heart and the skills for this job is a challenge. Martineau said. “It takes a certain type of personality to love this and embrace this. A very significant percentage (of our students) are completely non-verbal and all of our students have some degree of language impairment. Many of them are sent to us because they develop inappropriate behavior and the district just doesn’t have the resources to help them overcome those challenges.”

Tina Taylor, a clinical director at Nashoba Learning Group, worked in the public school system before coming to the school. Taylor spoke about the isolation she felt while working with special needs students in public schools; where often times an aide is paired with a student and works with them one-on-one for the entire school day.

“I just found the support was lacking in the public setting,” Taylor said. “I felt like I was often times just left to my own devices. It was an inclusive setting by I didn’t feel like there was a lot of community or planning around my student.”

Nashoba Learning Group utilizes a rotations system to avoid one teacher working with one student for too long. According to Martineau the rotations ensure that teachers have a supporting group of professionals and therefore keeps teachers from being burned out too quickly.

“A lot of what we try to do to minimize our staff turnover is to provide a very supportive system for our staff. It is a tough job but we have a lot of support around here to do right by those kids to provide them with the right kind of environment,” Martineau said. “A lot of the staff we get from the public schools, they don’t have the resources. If a kid is having a terrible problem, you don’t have someone to call and say ‘Take a look at this kid, tell me what you think’. Here we have all kinds of expertise to assist in those situations.”

The rotation system is based around four teachers who interchangeably swap between students. In addition to keeping teachers from feeling isolated with only one student, the system allows the professionals to exchange thoughts on the individual learner.

“Here you are not the only person that knows that child, you have a team of around seven people plus other specialists that all know that child inside and if you don’t know something there is always somebody you can ask and somebody you can rely on,” Taylor said.

Another strategy the school uses to keep retention rates high is an intensive training program that ensures new staff are fully aware of their job responsibilities.

“We have a six-week trial phase once people are hired so they can come in and see if this for them,” Education Administrator Maureen Lacerte said. “We can also observe them and we can discuss that maybe this is not the right forte for them.”

One area in which Nashoba Learning Group is looking to enhance is the amount of male instructors they have. The field of special needs education is heavily female and Lacerte estimated that their current staff is 95 percent female.

“A lot of families would like to have more male staff,” Lacerte said. “Male staff members are almost like golden eggs…;we are working on a lot of things like toilet training and other issues that are gender sensitive so they do like having male staff, but we don’t just get that many male applicants.”

The school recently opened up a second facility in Billerica that also includes adult education and they plan on continuing to expand.

“We are always hiring,” Martineau said. “We have expanded a lot recently and even with a high retention rate, we still lose about 20-30 staff members a year.”