They’ve been called the “backbone of public education,” the “glue” that holds classrooms and schools together, and “the lifeblood of the school community.” But more and more, the term used to describe education paraprofessionals – also known in public schools as paraeducators,teaching assistants, instructional assistants, or simply paras — is “unsung heroes.”
Leah, the West Seattle mom of a soon-to-be middle schooler, embraces the hero part:
“We didn’t think he’d ever be in regular classrooms alongside all the other kids,” says Leah of her son. To her delight, though, he spent most of 5th and 6th grades in general education classrooms and will continue to do so with support from paraeducators. Before that, he spent six years in much smaller self-contained special education classrooms.
During his last two years of elementary school, Leah says her son’s instructional assistant “was like Superwoman — she was like a hawk, always looking for signs of agitation or anxiety and constantly coming up with new ways to connect with him and connect him to what was happening in class.”
And what of the unsung part?
As a group, paras tend to be self-effacing, behind-the-scenes educators. As one Bothell paraeducator said: “Most of us aren’t comfortable in the spotlight.”
And that means paras “don’t get enough recognition for the important role they play in our education system,” says Mahamoud Gaayte, an SPS Somali student-and-family advocate.
What paraeducators will say, however, is that their work is becoming increasingly demanding. As the number of children with difficult behaviors or disabilities increases and as more and more teachers decide to leave education, paras often do more than their job descriptions call for and work more time than they get paid for to ensure students’ needs are met. Expanding roles coupled with low pay, lack of benefits, and lack of job security for those newly entering the field make recruiting and retaining paraeducators difficult.
“We are losing people, young people we need,” says Marla Rassmusen, a longtime paraprofessional with Seattle Public Schools and the president of the paraprofessional board at the Seattle Education Association.
What is a para?
The paraprofessional field covers a wide variety of positions within any given district. There are more than 30 paraprofessional roles in Seattle Public Schools (SPS), the largest school district in Washington. The majority of paras in Washington’s 306 school districts work as special education assistants, instructional assistants, bilingual education assistants and family support workers. What they have in common is this: all help students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) due to disability, English language difficulties, or other eligibility to access their education.
Paras are integral to delivering safe and effective special education programs and essential in general education classrooms where the majority of kids with IEPs learn. Most important, with their one-on-one personal connection, assistance, and dogged problem-solving, paras break down barriers to learning for students.
Kathleen Roll, a paraeducator at Seattle’s Whittier Elementary, sums up the work this way: “We are accessibility experts — or, maybe, inclusionary coaches. Understanding how to make classrooms accessible to all students is what our job is all about. Our job is to help kids access school to the best of their ability.”
She points out that paras work hand-in-hand with teachers, but also with administrators, nurses, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech/language pathologists, and any other staff involved in a child’s education plan.
“We take in all this information, know the IEP and behavioral plans, evaluate the child and the situation in front of us, and constantly finesse how we support each child,” Roll says.
Veteran special education teacher Angela Burke, who works in Edmonds School District, concurs: “They’re critical, and I really couldn’t do a good job without supportive paraeducators.”
Paraprofessionals by the numbers
Approximately 27,000 paraprofessionals are working in Washington public schools alongside nearly 71,000 classroom teachers. Together these educators serve more than a million students in 295 school districts and 16 charter schools.
According to the state superintendent’s office, about 143,000 eligible students in Washington State receive special education and related services.
Seattle Public Schools Communications Specialist Tina Riss Christiansen says SPS has 7,500-8,000 students whose disabilities or other challenges require an IEP (compared to about 3,500 each in Kent School District and Lake Washington School District). Last year about 1,400 paras supported those students alongside SPS teachers and other certified staff.
“All students have a right to participate in general education classrooms alongside their peers,” Christiansen says.
Paras, says Roll, ensure students are able to exercise that right. “We think on our feet, quickly, all day long, about what each kid is capable of and how to best support them in all settings at school.”
Supporting all students
Paraeducators say while they may focus their support on one or a handful of students with an IEP when working in a general education classroom, they also help kids without special plans or needs.
“Inside the classroom we want to make our students (with IEPs) as comfortable as possible,” explains Steven Alvarez, who’s been a special education assistant for nearly two decades and now works at Thornton Creek Elementary in Seattle. “That often means helping other students in the class. I’m modeling for my students all the time. By helping other students, I’m giving them a signal that they can help and connect.” Alvarez was named Washington Education Association Education Support Person of the Year in 2020.
Alvarez often has kids from general education classrooms join his IEP students in small groups outside class: “My student then doesn’t feel they are alone struggling. In the end, I think we help a lot more kids than we realize.”
The rising tide of teacher attrition
A brief published in February by the Policymakers Council at the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) found that teacher attrition and turnover rates are now at historic highs in Washington State. In 2022 the rate was 8.91%, more than a percentage point higher than in any of the previous 37 school years.
Many districts, including Seattle, have developed programs to encourage paraeducators to obtain teaching certification to help fill the teacher pool. And in 2019, in response to the growing need for paraeducators, the state implemented the Paraeducator certificate program (called the Fundamental Course of Study) to provide training that paraeducators say they need to work in sometimes fraught situations – for example, with students with high behavioral regulation needs – and provide support equitably.
High turnover among paras
Unfortunately, recruiting and retaining paraeducators remains challenging, say local education association representatives and a separate CALDER report released in April. According to that report, the paraeducator attrition rate after the 2021-22 school year (23%) was more than twice as high as the attrition rate after the 2008-09 school year (8%).
“Our findings clearly point to a crisis in paraeducator retention,” the authors concluded.
Recruit and retain: The paraeducator challenge
Expanded paraeducator training and support in obtaining teaching certificates are helpful recruitment or retention tools for new and experienced paras. But Rasmussen maintains that those enticements need to be bolstered by higher pay, benefits, and more job security for new paraeducators. The need to increase paraeducator pay was one of the issues that led union members to the picket line last September.
“Many of us end up working two or three jobs,” Rasmussen says. “That is a reality we face, particularly in cities like Seattle, where rent is so high.” Paraeducators, Rasmussen adds, do not receive extra pay for the physical risks of the job or the extra pay that special education certified teachers get for each student in class over the standard IEP teacher-student ratio.
“But we do take on the impact of the overload, which often reflects in missing breaks in order to keep students safe,” says Rasmussen.
“Paraprofessionals are overworked, they’ve been hit, they get kicked,” she adds. “They are the ones to step in to de-escalate situations. Even so, they love the students. And that’s why they’re there. We want successes to continue. If we leave, that might not happen.”
Seattle Public Schools’ Christianse says SPS “cannot respond to statements made by union representatives or discussions that were part of negotiations with our labor partners.” The same is true of other school districts contacted regarding union comments about paraprofessional pay concerns.
But SPS did confirm pay rates. In Seattle, the starting pay range for a new paraprofessional, depending on their role, is between $23 and $38 per hour. Paras who are education assistants and bilingual instruction assistants start at around $29 an hour. By comparison, minimum wage in Seattle is currently $18.69. Rasmussen points out that paraeducators in Seattle and most local districts only get paid for 203 work days or fewer each year.
Will I have a job next year?
Rasmussen, who also works with paraprofessional leaders across Washington, says job security is another concern when recruiting people into the paraprofessional field. New and non-certified staff are often the first to go when budget cuts are made.
SPS’s Christiansen stresses that Seattle Public Schools, like most school districts across the country, have a seniority-based system negotiated in collective bargaining.
“When there are budget cuts, mostly due to lack of adequate funding by the state, we do end up having to eliminate positions,” she says. “In cases like this, however, the effects are district-wide and not just targeted to one employee group. When positions are eliminated, employees in them have the right to bump others with less seniority.”
Still says, Rasmussen, “That’s where we lose many of our educators, particularly some of our really strong educators who just graduated from college,” says Rasmussen. “They can’t wait for the end of summer to see if they get hired again. It’s a gamble.”
The welcome committee
When a child with a disability or other challenge that requires an IEP steps off the bus each day, a paraeducator is waiting for them.
“I’m the first one who sees my students every day when they get out of the car or off the bus. I greet each one and look to see how they are coming in — are they coming in hot? Is their parent giving me a thumbs up or a thumbs down or sideways? I start thinking about how to help that child through the day right there,” says Alvarez.
Paraeducators are often the most-trusted school touchstones for the kids they serve.
“We are the ones students connect with, that they will confide in,” Rochelle Greenwell, a Kent School District paraeducator and president of the Kent Association of Paraeducators, says of the spectrum of care paras provide. “We are also the ones that will change the diaper, that will spoon feed the medically fragile students that need extra and additional support to thrive in a public classroom setting.”
Greenwell says most paras she knows aren’t interested in becoming certified teachers. They love the job they do, she says. She, like more than half of the paras in Kent, has a college degree, but chose the paraeducator role because it allows her to have a more direct positive impact on students.
My degree is in education, and I could be certified staff if I choose to be,” Greewell says. “Our positions require us to be detail-oriented, personable, compassionate, flexible, accommodating, and organized — a far cry from the role of a teacher’s aide back in the old days.”
Equally important, says Greenwell, “We bridge the gaps, mend the holes and uplift the students that feel downtrodden.”
Leah, the West Seattle mom, says her son once felt that way. For years when he got frustrated, he banged his head and called himself “stupid.”
“His assistant changed that. She lifted him up. She was patient, found ways to help him succeed and shine. She is forever our hero — and his.”
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