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Short on special education teachers, Hillsborough plucks from other fields

A two-year program nurtures college graduates with degrees outside education, preparing them for classroom careers.
Jonacee Penick teaches students with varying exceptionalities at McLane Middle School on Brandon.
Jonacee Penick teaches students with varying exceptionalities at McLane Middle School on Brandon. [ Courtesy of Jonacee Penick ]
Published Feb. 24
Updated Feb. 24

It was a proud moment when Jonacee Penick held her tongue while a middle school student danced spontaneously by his desk.

It was a learning moment when Keyla Somarriba realized a big part of her job was hearing about her students’ weekends.

Neither teacher had formal training before they stepped into Hillsborough County classrooms in what is arguably the most bizarre school year ever.

Now they are catching children up on delayed academic skills, studying for their own state competency exams, and hoping to attract others into exceptional student education, a specialized field in need of recruits.

“Do it, do it, do it,” said Penick, 26. “Please do it. Teaching is such a fulfilling job. It’s like you’re teaching the students. But they’re also teaching you patience. And definitely, being kind.”

Exceptional student education, or ESE, is a broad range of specialties where school systems always have a large demand. This year is no different. Even as Hillsborough tries to trim its workforce to save money, administrators are trying to build their bench of caring professionals to meet the needs of more than 30,000 students.

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All her life Penick was told she should be a teacher. Her father, a painter in Polk County, was especially vocal on that subject. “I’m a superstar, Dad,” she would answer. “I’m not a teacher.”

She majored in professional writing, rhetoric and technology at the University of South Florida. “I was just going to graduate college, and then put out business cards and just promote myself,” she said. “And everybody was going to be like, ‘I need a graphic designer’ and my business was going to grow.”

None of that happened. She gave birth to a child who is now 4. She worked for a technology company. She was laid off in February, just as the pandemic took hold.

Somarriba, 23, grew up in a close-knit Miami family that included a lot of younger cousins. She volunteered at a church nursery while studying psychology at Florida State University. She minored in family and child sciences, knowing she wanted to work with children. She was going to take a year off before graduate school. Her parents had relocated to Riverview and, with college virtual because of the pandemic, she moved in with them.

She learned about the school district’s alternative certification program from her boyfriend, who teaches chemistry at Newsome High. The two-year program, called Supporting Teachers in ESE Prep, is aimed at attracting college graduates with degrees outside education.

Because of her undergraduate background, Somarriba was not put off by the challenges of exceptional student education. “I don’t think it intimidated me,” she said. “It was more the teaching aspect than the type of students I’d be working with.”

She found a job at Corr Elementary, a short drive from her parents’ home, teaching second-graders.

Penick landed at McLane Middle School in Brandon, and her journey had a few more twists and turns. She wanted to teach high school. But McLane’s principal, seeing her application in the system, thought she was worth a look.

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A supervisor shared with her that she, too, had been recruited to McLane. The woman said, “I didn’t choose middle school, middle school chose me,” Penick recalled. And the words resonated as she remembered her own awkward years in middle school.

The two teachers begin their days with Somarriba greeting children at the car line and Penick having breakfast in the student cafeteria. Penick teaches whole classes in English and study skills. Somarriba works in small groups and sometimes alongside the children in their mainstream classes.

Both are considered teachers of varying exceptionalities, meaning their students, for a variety of reasons, need support in their general education classrooms.

Keyla Somarriba, a varying exceptionalities teacher at Corr Elementary, uses clay to help students Micah Grimsley and Carson Butler in a lesson about fractions. [Courtesy of Keyla Somarriba]
Keyla Somarriba, a varying exceptionalities teacher at Corr Elementary, uses clay to help students Micah Grimsley and Carson Butler in a lesson about fractions. [Courtesy of Keyla Somarriba]

McLane buses large numbers of students in from high-poverty East Tampa, and has struggled over the years with student behavior problems. Today, social emotional learning is a priority at the school. Students learn impulse control and how to avoid conflict and bullying. They are encouraged to have a “comfort person” — an adult, but not necessarily their own teacher — who they trust.

Corr, on the surface, seems to serve a more comfortable population.

But Somarriba has run across children who crave attention and affection from her, sometimes because of stress in their families. Because she works with them in small groups, they feel at ease opening up to her.

“I see them seeking more attention in the way they would get from a family member, more than coming to school to learn,” she said. She acknowledges that has been an adjustment.

• • •

Both teachers will run a gamut of state exams if they want to continue this work. The district program helps with the costs and gives preparation classes on Saturdays. The state sweetened the pot this past year by waiving some of the exam fees because of COVID-19, and by raising starting teacher salaries to roughly $47,000. On top of that, Penick gets a district bonus because of McLane’s status as a high-needs “transformation” school.

The two are gaining confidence as the year progresses. “Something I heard a lot when I started was, ‘This is everyone’s first year teaching,’” Somarriba said. “Because no one has ever had to work through a pandemic.”

She likes it that participants in the two-year training program move as a group, and can help each other along the way. “It was super easy to understand what my steps would be, what would be expected of me, and knowing that I had people to reach out to and ask, ‘What do I do here?’” she said.

Penick revels in proud moments like the one involving the student who just started dancing one day, for no reason. “He’s just shaking, shaking, shaking,” she said. “And I say, ‘We’ll just see where this goes.’”

To her delight, “he got it all out, sat down, and he picked up his pencil and he did his work.”

• • •

To learn more

The school district provided this slide show with information about its accelerated certification program for special education teachers. There will be virtual informational meetings about the Supporting Teachers in ESE Prep program at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday and on March 2. Use this link to register. To learn more, contact, 813-840-7317.