Newest faculty will teach special education, American Sign Language

Ann Hilburn and her husband had driven from Mississippi to Bellingham, Washington, to catch the ferry for her new job at Wrangell Public Schools. They made the 2,700-mile drive in four days. "It was long days," she said.

"The day we pulled off the ferry with our U-Haul and our pickup truck," the schools superintendent, principal and special education coordinator had planned to meet the couple at the terminal. But the ferry was early, and the welcoming committee missed the rendezvous.

"They had come to help us unload," Hilburn said of the group, which changed direction and headed right over to the apartment and went to work unloading.

"That speaks volumes of the community," Hilburn said at the high school last week as she was getting ready for the start of classes.

Hilburn - Wrangell's only new teacher this year - is the special education teacher for the high school and middle school, and also will teach American Sign Language.

"It's no harder than learning any other foreign language," she said, noting that 11 or 12 high school students had signed up for the class as of last week.

That doesn't mean it's easy. "If any are taking it because it's a soft class, they will be sorely disappointed," she said.

Her first college degree was in education of the deaf, which she earned at Southern Mississippi University. She has taught hearing-impaired students for years.

Hilburn later earned a master's degree in education administration at a university in Illinois.

She has taught in Mississippi, Texas and Idaho, in addition to three different jobs in Alaska: The Lower Yukon School District; then Gustavus, where she also served as principal; and Angoon, where she was superintendent.

Back in Mississippi, she took a year off and was planning to retire when the Wrangell School District saw her profile online and called. "They talked me into it," she said, smiling with the eagerness of starting a new school year.

Wrangell is by far the largest town in Alaska she has worked in, adding that she and her husband enjoy hiking and already have been on the Mt. Dewey, petroglyphs and nature trails, with Rainbow Falls next on their agenda - plus they got in some berry picking - in just the first few weeks in town.

As the high school and middle school special ed teacher, Hilburn will work with students who need extra help in school and with life skills, she explained. She will work with the district's special education coordinator, Ryan Howe.

Of the 16 high school and middle school students in the special education program, five need one-on-one help, Hilburn said. She has four assistants, with two more positions unfilled. Experience is helpful, but not required. The district will provide training, she said.

"I could not do this job without assistants," Hilburn said. "Two more would make a tremendous difference."

Wrangell is not alone with empty jobs. There is a nationwide shortage of special ed assistants, she said.


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