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The State Board of Regents this month cleared the way for Black Hills State University to offer a new online master's degree in special education that school officials say is the first of its kind in South Dakota.

"This new program is basically for people who are aspiring special education teachers," said Sharman Adams, dean of the university's college of education. "They can come back to school and gain both their initial certification and a master's degree."

Approximately 10 students are expected to enter the two-year, online program this fall. Graduates will walk out holding both their teacher's license and master's degree, something that Adams said no other in-state program makes possible.

By offering the program online, board and school officials hope to make the degree more obtainable at a time of national and statewide special education teacher shortages. The Associated School Boards of South Dakota has previously reported that 60 percent of districts in the state have had unfilled special education positions in the last three years.

Louise Yoho, assistant professor of education and program coordinator, said it's not clear why the positions are proving so difficult to fill.

"I know that as a state we have a hard time holding onto teachers in general because our salaries are so low and our benefits are so low," she said. 

And in the National Center for Learning Disabilities' estimation, 6,715 children or 12.4 percent of all South Dakota public school students receive special education of some kind.

Yoho said that contrary to popular perception, a majority of special needs students are taught in a general classroom setting. The critical responsibility of special educators, she said, is in providing those students with services outside the classroom like behavioral and psychological support and occupational training, among others.

“Special education isn’t a location. Special education is a collection of services that are mandated to be freely and appropriately offered to all public school students," Yoho said.

Classes covering assistive technology, behavior management and severe disabilities are among those included in the program's course load. Prospective students are required to participate in a special education practicum as part of their pre-admission work and will be required to student teach in order to obtain their certifications.

Graduate students enrolled in the program will be able to collaborate through online discussion boards and instant messaging programs, Yoho said. She added that prospective students were already looking at forming a local chapter of a national organization for aspiring special educators.

Two full-time faculty members, including Yoho, will be overseeing the program along with several adjunct instructors. Adams said additional faculty will likely be hired as the program grows.

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