The Washington Legislature this year agreed to help principals struggling with a teacher shortage — especially in special-education classrooms — by tapping into a deep recruiting pool of thousands of paraeducators who already work with at-risk students.

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In Washington state, one in five principals last fall said they were in a “crisis mode” as they tried to find enough teachers to fill every classroom.

The most challenging position they struggled to fill, according to a state survey, was for teachers in special-education programs. Nearly two-thirds of principals said they found it difficult to find teachers for those classrooms.

But a new state law may offer principals some relief by tapping into a deep recruiting pool of thousands of educators who already work with special-needs and other at-risk students.

“As a future workforce of teachers, this is kind of a gold mine,” said Cathy Smith, a paraeducator who has worked for 20 years in Olympia schools.

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About 27,000 para-educators work in schools across the Evergreen State, according to the Public School Employees of Washington (PSE) union. And paraeducators cover a wide variety of essential classroom duties: instructional assistants, teacher’s aides, library technicians, preschool caregivers and more.

They also provide the bulk of instruction — 62 percent, the PSE estimates — in programs that serve some of the neediest students, including children with special needs and those who are learning English or live in low-income households. The new law, in fact, explicitly states that “paraeducators provide the majority of instruction in programs designed by the Legislature to reduce the opportunity gap.”

So after a five-year lobbying effort, lawmakers in April almost unanimously agreed — there was only one “no” vote — to create new rules for how school districts train paraeducators. The state also will simplify what it takes for a paraeducator to become a fully certified teacher.

“You’ve got paraeducators right there in the classroom … showing each and every day they enjoy being in that environment,” said Doug Nelson, the PSE’s government-relations director.

“Let’s train those paraeducators so they stay, and then let’s train them to become teachers. This isn’t rocket science,” he added.

Under the law, a new state board will help expand community-college programs that connect a two-year technical degree for paraeducators to a four-year teaching degree that includes certification. Five colleges already received approval to do just that: Centralia, Grays Harbor, Highline, Pierce and Yakima Valley.

Individual districts also may apply to design so-called “grow-your-own” teacher programs that recruit existing staff, including paraeducators and substitutes, to earn the necessary degrees to become a teacher. (The Highline schools, in South King County, will graduate its first cohort of bilingual paraeducators next year to work as teachers in their dual-language programs.)

Starting in the 2018-19 school year, districts also can compete for about $250,000 in grants to pilot new training courses for paraeducators before the Legislature in 2019 decides whether to fully implement the program statewide. And new certifications, which paraeducators can earn on a basic, advanced or specialized basis, may even come with higher pay, depending on local contract negotiations.

“All over the country, paraeducators are viewed as a Band-Aid to not having teachers,” Nelson said. “That looks at it as a negative.

“We want to create a situation where parents have a paraeducator working with their children and feel good about it,” he said.

For Lake Washington parent Beth Sigall, paraeducators have made a difference in her son’s life from his first day of kindergarten to his upcoming senior year in high school.

Sigall, whose son has autism, lobbied for passage of the paraeducator bill. In an email, she said paraeducators helped prevent her son from being shuffled into classes that weren’t a good fit for him.

“Some years, (especially) in elementary school, when his behaviors were very challenging, his paraeducator was often the one person my son could rely on — they weathered the storm even on his worst days,” Sigall wrote.

“If we are serious about the opportunity gap, then support for paraeducators should be a top priority,” she added.