KENNEWICK, Wash. (AP) - Karen McLaughlin listened intently to the small group seated at her table, even as the cacophony of a kindergarten classroom with nearly 30 students buzzed around her.
“Zack thinks ‘cat’ is a real word,” McLaughlin, a paraeducator at Kennewick’s Lincoln Elementary School, told the six students gathered around her. “Is it a real word or a nonsense word?”
“A real word,” the students replied before pasting the paper with the word in the appropriate space on a worksheet.
“I can actually see who is sounding it out,” McLaughlin said after the lesson. “If it was just their teacher, a few kids who struggled may not get noticed.”
Hundreds of paraeducators like McLaughlin assist in classrooms throughout the Tri-Cities every school year. They aren’t required to hold a college degree, but must pass a basic test of skills and receive other training, from math and reading intervention to playground management, depending on the district they work in.
They provide assistance in general classrooms, but also work closely with special-needs students or English-language learners, serve as crossing guards and cover lunchroom and recess duties. It’s a job district administrators and teachers say is crucial to educating students.
The state-level union representing paraeducators is pushing for legislation that would set stricter hiring standards for those positions and require school districts to more evenly spend the money they receive for educator training between teachers and those assisting them.
Union officials point to the increasing reliance on paraeducators, especially for students most in need, as to why the bar needs to be raised.
“Our point is, are these paras important or just throwaway positions?” Doug Nelson, government relations director for Public School Employees of Washington, recently told the Herald editorial board.
District officials say it’s time, not money, that is the biggest obstacle to providing additional training to paraeducators, who are typically hourly employees and are often difficult to get into schools outside of typical school hours.
While there is no uniform set of requirements for paras, those working with kids with the greatest struggles have to hold higher credentials. Raising hiring standards threatens to dry up an already shrinking pool of job candidates.
“A lot of people already have excellent life experience that counts toward their work for Kennewick schools,” said Betsy Dickinson, human resources manager for the district’s classified employees.
An evolving role
The role of a paraeducator has changed dramatically in the more than 20 years that Reen Doser, president of the Public School Employees, has worked in classrooms.
What was once mostly watching kids at recess or helping put up bulletin boards has morphed into actual instruction with small student groups, often without teachers having time or the experience to provide proper guidance. Many paras don’t have any formal education beyond a high school diploma.
“There has been very little training, but I’m expected to help raise kids to the benchmark,” Doser said. “I’ve been given (English language learners) and I don’t have the training or curriculum to teach them.”
Parent Micaela Razo says a lack of job standards for paraeducators led her family to move from a Yakima Valley school district to Richland, forcing her husband to take a lower-paying job, in order to ensure her teenage son received a proper education.
While intelligent and gifted musically, Razo’s son is diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome, and the paras that were assigned to him frequently weren’t prepared to handle his behavioral ticks or help him meet the goals of his individual education plan.
“We had to find ways to bring in professors (and) doctors to try and literally explain Tourette’s to school staff,” Razo said.
Public School Employees proposed a bill during the 2015 legislative session that would have created new employment standards, forced districts to provide more professional development, and created a clearer path for paraeducators to become teachers. The bill failed to make it out of committee, largely because of opposition from teacher advocacy groups, union officials said.
Now the union is working with teachers, school administrators, parents and other administrators as well as lawmakers on new legislation - which includes many of the provisions in the original bill - to propose during the next legislative session.
“If you were in the private sector, you would not design a system like this,” Nelson said.
A critical resource
More than 1,100 paraeducators work in the Kennewick, Pasco and Richland school districts.
Michelle Whitney, Pasco’s deputy superintendent and successor to Superintendent Saundra Hill, knows firsthand how important they are to schools, having worked with paras when she started as a kindergarten teacher about 20 years ago.
“They see our kids (each school day) often before our teachers do,” she said.
State funding to school districts does cover costs for some paraeducators, Tri-City district officials said. Those staff typically work in general classrooms or assist in other roles around schools.
Local unions representing paraeducators typically offer regular training sessions to their members.
But the bulk of the paraeducators working in schools are employed either through grants or specific state and federal programs for special education or schools with high-poverty populations. Those positions already have tougher hiring requirements.
They also must take more training, such as Core Competency Training for those in special education programs, which covers how to safely work with special needs students and guide their education. Kennewick also helps its sign language interpreters and Braillists maintain professional certification.
And along with all that training, district officials said they take pains to make sure paraeducators are working with students with teacher-designed curriculum and also being monitored.
‘We really are at a catch-22’
Finding a time of day when paraeducators are available to participate in training is a big problem, officials said.
Schools are reticent to send paras to training activities during the school day because of the difficulty of finding substitutes to fill in for them. Many paras are working parents and have commitments outside the school day and on weekends.
“Teachers get paid to attend training, and we don’t get all the teachers we want,” said Alyssa St. Hilaire, Kennewick’s bilingual coordinator.
Raising hiring standards, such as requiring paraeducators to have a college degree, could also pose problems for districts. Earning a degree wouldn’t necessarily add to a para’s ability to work in a classroom, but it could make it easier for them to find other work, depleting a workforce that is becoming just as tenuous as the one causing a teacher shortage across the state.
“We really are at a catch-22,” said Richland Assistant Superintendent Erich Bolz. “Once people are trained to that level, they look for greener pastures.”
There still is room for improvement, officials said. Richland has already provided more professional development opportunities this school year than it did in all of the previous school year, Bolz said.
Pasco plans to take more steps in the next calendar year to make sure paraeducators know of training opportunities being offered in the district to teachers, Whitney said. That training also will be of equal value to those assisting them.
It would be great to have more training, para McLaughlin said, specifically for her and others to have more time to work one-on-one with the teachers they’re assisting.
But she acknowledged that finding that time is difficult. Regardless, she knows where to go if she needs help working with a specific student or challenge in the classroom.
She’s also taken advantage of other training opportunities when she’s been able to and knows other paras are similarly interested in doing what they can to add to the classroom environment.
“I want to feel like I’m giving them as much as possible,” she said of her students.
Information from: Tri-City Herald, https://www.tri-cityherald.com
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