GREENWOOD — A Center Grove teacher and mom of three spends a late summer day packing up her classroom.
"I love what I do. I've loved my job," Stacie Painter said. "So I'm kind of having the emotion as I box up my room and put away the things that have been in here for so long, knowing that this chapter is closing."
Room 205 inside Center Grove Middle School Central was decorated with special items that tell the story of Painter's life.
In her room the former Trojan cheerleader, and now coach, packs up her red and white poms into a box. She takes down her bulletin board filled with pictures of her husband and young children. Her rocking chair that she got in her first year of teaching is ready to move to a new space.
"Half my teaching career has been spent in room 205," said Painter.
The sixth grade general education teacher, who this year will mark her 17th year of teaching, will be doing so in a new space.
But thankfully, this lifelong Trojan isn't moving too far.
"I've been a Trojan my whole life," Painter said.
Painter is now married to her high school sweetheart who also happens to be a teacher in this building. Education inside walls of CGMSC is a family affair.
"My dad works here, my sister works here, my husband works here, my mom was a secretary in this building, so we are Trojans through and through," says Painter. "This is where I wanted to be. This is my home."
Her new classroom comes with a new role in the building, as a special education teacher.
It's a position her principal Jason Wiesmann says has needed to be filled for some time.
"The school went without last year," Wiesmann said. "And so that puts a strain on some of the other teachers."
Painter was inspired to pursue the new role thanks to a very special young boy in her life.
"Everyone who knows him can't help but love him," Painter said. "My son Nolan is the light of everyone's life."
Painter's youngest child Nolan is 10 years old and starting the fourth grade in the Center Grove school district.
"He has Autism and a specific learning disability," Painter said. "And we have learned so much from him and through him."
Painter says she not only feels passionate about working with students with special needs but also their parents and can relate to them on a different level.
She was thankful to have the opportunity to take on this new role thanks to a brand new program in the state of Indiana called ASSET, or Aspiring Statewide Special Education Teacher.
"When I brought it to my administration, as something to consider, they said lets do it right now," Painter said.
"It is inspiring for me and others when we see teachers that want to take a leap of faith and show some vulnerability and grow in a new way," Wiesmann said.
ASSET allows current educators with a valid teaching license in the state to get training and education in special education at no extra cost to them and on paid time.
"It is free which is my favorite word so I know for a lot of teachers, one of the hardest things about getting an additional degree or masters is that it's expensive," Painter said. "It's really fabulous that the state has created this program."
ASSET is a new program that started last year with its first cohort of educators going through the training for about 11 months and then they take the PRAXIS exam for this additional certification.
The first cohort was deemed successful with more than 100 participants statewide. The second cohort just started up, and has more than doubled in size with more than 200 educators taking part right now.
"We need teachers. We need great teachers. We need compassionate, loving people who can connect and help," Painter said. "We really need special education teachers. There is no job in education that is easy right now. It's all hard so it's kind of like choose your hard and be compassionate about it."
Painter echos the sentiment felt by many leaders of education in our state and by special education advocates.
WRTV talked to Dr. Katie Jenner, Indiana's Secretary of Education, about the need for special education teachers in Indiana.
"So we monitor very closely in Indiana what our need is, exactly where we need to triage. So we know that our most needed educator positions are in special education, for our English learner students, and in areas of STEM so science, technology, engineering and mathematics," Jenner said. "Specifically the most recent data shows that we have about 1,400 positions open, teaching positions open throughout our state. And about 300 of those are specifically in special education."
Jenner says when they came in as a team a couple of years ago, they decided they could not admire this problem and they needed to take action to tackle it head-on.
Together her staff worked with special education advocates across the state and parent groups to look for solutions.
One solution brought to the table by advocates like Joe Kwisz, led to the ASSET program.
"People are embracing this because it is a great way to keep wonderful people in the field, working with some pretty awesome kids out there," said Kwisz, the president of ASSET. "We were losing people because there wasn't many attractive options out there."
Kwisz is one of the primary designers of the ASSET program and helped pitch it to state leaders.
He says they found funding for the program so it wouldn't cost the teachers money to get the additional training needed for the role, and it is also a partnership between teachers and their administration. The teachers are assigned a mentor within their district to work with on their training, and the school provides a substitute teacher during training days. This is a hands-on approach using the skills they already have in the classroom and they build on those skills and the pedagogy for special education.
"Indiana is the only state in the nation doing this. We are leading the charge," said Kwisz. "Sometimes you have to be brave to have bold endeavors for kids out there, and I think this certainly is setting a model for the rest of the nation."
Jenner says her office has been tapped by other state leaders to share more about this program and how it is working to meeting this need in Indiana.
"A lot of success stories at the community level and with our state data, we are getting pinged by a number of different states about how we are doing it, how we set that up," Jenner said. "Of course, finding great teachers, in this case special education teachers, is a national challenge."
The need for people in special education is great. Jenner says data shows last year 16 percent of students in Indiana qualified for special education and that number can vary by grade level and district. An increase in the need for special education in more recent years can also be attributed to more early intervention.
In addition to the ASSET program, the state also has a sister program targeting a different population called I-SEAL. This stands for the Indiana Special Education Assisted Licensure. I-SEAL provides financial backing that allows someone who has a bachelor's degree and currently works in a school district to become fully licensed to teach special education for a public school in Indiana. This is done through three universities in the state and classes are online. To be eligible, the teacher must sign a letter of intent to remain employed at an Indiana school as a special education teacher for at least two years past the completion of the program.
"The I-SEAL opportunity was actually launched in November of 2021 after we came in as a team and saw that we had a significant number of teachers on emergency certifications in the special education area," says Jenner. "We know that the most important thing for a child is a high-quality, well-trained teacher."
Whether an individual takes part in I-SEAL or the new ASSET program, Jenner says there are two main qualities and skills they are looking for in special education teachers.
"Number one, they have to be deeply passionate meeting a child where they are and supporting their growth however fast or slow that might be," Jenner said. "The second thing I would say is special education is really a team approach. You have a lot of different teachers at the table. You also have our parents at the table and working hand and hand collaboratively to build the best possible education plan for that child."
Back at Center Grove, for teachers and parents like Painter, it's all about learning how a child with special needs sees the world and cheering them on in all that they do.
"When God put Nolan in our lives with his challenges and his special abilities, as we like to call it, I just felt like it was giving me a new understanding of kids with disabilities and a new way to connect with parents who have kids with disabilities," Painter said. "There are so many blessings that come with having a child with special needs, it just makes you view the world in a different way."
For anyone interested in learning more about the ASSET program or I-SEAL through the state, you can visit the Department of Education's website.
For ASSET, specifically, the state has made the application process very simple.
Go to icase.org/assetand click application. The current cohort is full, but a new one starts next summer and there they provide more information for anyone interested.