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Seattle: Paras, "unsung heroes"; 27,000 paras in WA

Aug 21, 2023, Seattle’s Child: Paras: The unsung heroes of public schools

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.” …

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….

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….

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. …

“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….

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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