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YAKIMA — During the first period at Franklin Middle School, a jokester distracted Raquel Cortez from helping other students struggling to finish an end-of-the-year project for extra credit.

She calmly took a seat next to him, opened a textbook to the same page he wasn’t reading and waited until he shrugged his shoulders, smiled and started working on the project with her. In that moment, Cortez looked like a teacher — but on paper, she’s a paraeducator, one of approximately 25,500 people who hold that title in Washington schools.

By comparison, there’s more than 66,000 fully certified teachers working here.

More commonly known as teacher’s aides or classroom assistants, paraeducators earn about half the salary of the average teacher in the Evergreen State. And yet, more and more, schools here and across Washington are relying on these workers to help mitigate a chronic teacher shortage.

It’s for that reason the state has eyed paraeducators as potential teacher recruits. Developing that pipeline would not only help stanch a growing number of classroom vacancies — it also would improve diversity, alleviating the problem of a mostly white teaching force that doesn’t look like its students.

As of the 2017-18 school year, paraeducators like Cortez provided nearly two-thirds of the instructional time in special-education classrooms. The same is true for programs that serve English learners and children from low-income households, according to the Public School Employees of Washington, a statewide union that represents paraeducators.

That’s largely the case in schools across the country: Paraeducators typically receive less training directly related to instruction, and yet they often work with the students with the highest needs. But Washington stands alone in its recognition of that mismatch, and for the first time this fall, every school district must offer a new training course that all instructional paraeducators must complete.

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“Basically it’s sink or swim, and a lot of people sink,” said Cortez, who works primarily with students with disabilities.

What paras want

Over the past school year, Cortez joined about 40 other paraeducators in Yakima for a pilot of the new mandatory training course.

The hybrid online-and-in-person sessions cover instruction, classroom management and cultural competency, with a heavy emphasis on English learners and special education. The training taught Cortez how students with disabilities learn differently — a skill she tapped into during a small reading group that day.

As students struggled with words like “trousers,” “untidy” and “maintenance,” Cortez switched tactics, helping one eighth grader with pronunciation before encouraging another to consider the interaction between a prefix and root word.

“This kind of training could have shaved some of that on-the-job growing pain,” she said. “I always got frustrated: What I was doing wrong? Why aren’t (the students) getting it? But I wasn’t trained to be a teacher.”

In a 2017 survey of about 5,000 paraeducators in Washington, nearly 90% said they would take advantage of opportunities to learn how to improve at their job.

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Tiffany Moritz, another paraeducator in Yakima, counted herself among those hungry for more professional support.

“You really do just get thrown in,” she said. “If you’re lucky, you get paired with a teacher who can show you the ropes. Most don’t know what to do with you.”

Moritz has spent about a decade at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary, where on a recent Wednesday she walked into teacher Aracely Olivera’s third-grade classroom.

As Olivera zigzagged among students clamoring for help with an essay about their favorite animals, a half-eaten English muffin grew stale on her desk. A look of relief appeared on her face as Moritz attended to other students with their arms in the air.

“You see why I need help?” Olivera asked. “We’re so lucky to have Ms. Moritz, but we’re on our own the rest of the day.”

Paraeducator Tiffany Moritz gives Eric Gonzalez, 9, a high-five in Aracely Olivera’s classroom last month at Martin Luther King Elementary in Union Gap, part of the Yakima School District. (Amanda Ray / Yakima Herald-Republic)
Paraeducator Tiffany Moritz gives Eric Gonzalez, 9, a high-five in Aracely Olivera’s classroom last month at Martin Luther King Elementary in Union Gap, part of the Yakima School District. (Amanda Ray / Yakima Herald-Republic)

Traditionally, paraeducators perform the catchall jobs that keep schools running: detention duty, recess monitor, crossing guards. And for Moritz, she sandwiches those tasks in between the work she loves most: tutoring small groups of low-income children in reading.

“Some days, I’m a nurse. On the playground, I’m a counselor. I’m also their friend, and their cheerleader,” Moritz said. “In the classroom, I’m teaching the exact same thing as the (certificated) teacher.”

In the third-grade class, Moritz navigated the needs of each student as effortlessly as Olivera, the official teacher. The students, in fact, called Moritz “teacher.”

“The kids don’t make a distinction,” Moritz said. “I’m not ‘just’ a paraeducator to them.”

“I may not have the degree, but basically I’m their teacher.”

A heavy lift

After the final day of school last month, Cortez and Moritz finished a final round of training.

The three-day session focused on how each paraeducator can better support English learners. It’s a necessary skill in Yakima, where a full third of students come from linguistically diverse homes — compared to just 12% statewide.

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By the start of the next school year, all 295 school districts in Washington must provide similar training for their instructional paraeducators. That gives Yakima, as an early adopter, a slight advantage: Rather than starting from scratch and rushing to train hundreds of paraeducators over the summer, the district already has a course in place and partnership with local union leaders to provide trainers.

The pending deadline is challenging Issaquah, another pilot district with about 200 instructional paraeducators.

“The first year will be a heavy lift,” said Judy Heasly, a learning coach for paraeducators. “Right off the bat, every paraeducator has to go through all this.”

Districts also may feel harried as most will need to bargain the extra training time with their local unions.

An added wrinkle: In 2017, state lawmakers pledged to fully fund a mandatory, four-day training course for all paraeducators. But budget negotiations during this year’s legislative session provided only enough money to pay for half.

There’s also growing recognition that it’s not just paraeducators who need better training, and that the teachers that paraeducators are supposed to support could benefit from learning exactly how to work with the extra adult in their classrooms.

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“This isn’t an aspect of teacher prep that’s done particularly well,” said Deb Eldridge, dean and academic vice president for the teachers college at Western Governors University-Washington.

Eldridge previously worked with a national accreditor to vet teacher-preparation programs. And many, she said, spent little time helping teachers-to-be understand how to work with paraeducators.

As for its work to support paraeducators, she said, “Washington is ahead of the curve.”

Growing the pipeline

As for a separate challenge, Washington officials see a solution: turning paraeducators into teachers to bridge a vexing cultural divide between the state’s largely white teachers and their increasingly diverse students. It makes sense: Paraeducators often grew up in the same neighborhood as their students.

“Paraeducators are more diverse than teachers. They speak different languages, and their community connections are stronger,” said Alexandra Manuel, executive director of the Professional Educator Standards Board.

At South Shore K-8 in Seattle, Jeremi Oliver has worked as a paraeducator for six years, frequently serving as disciplinarian and mediator. But Oliver, who grew up around the corner, hopes to do more than punish the students at a school where many look like him.

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He wants to become a full-fledged teacher.

“I grew up here,” Oliver said of South Seattle. “I left for 12 years, came back and saw the struggle. I want to do this work because I’m a black male, but I’m not a statistic. I want my students to know that (about themselves) too.”

To recruit people like him into teacher roles, the state has approved nearly two dozen “grow-your-own” programs in which school districts and colleges help working paraeducators get their teaching licenses. And as of last year, paraeducators can apply for up to $4,000 in conditional loans to cover tuition and other college costs — if they agree to teach for at least two years in Washington.

There’s also hope that drawing paraeducators from special-education, high-poverty and English-learner programs will close the teacher shortages in those subject areas.

Oliver has already pushed against the constraints of his official job: This year, his principal let him pilot a leadership class for young men of color at South Shore.

“We’re giving them a safe, comfortable space to think about and ask new questions about what it means to be a man in this world,” Oliver recently told a group of parents who attended an orientation night before their sons started a summer extension of his class.

In early May, Oliver joined a local “grow your own” program: He’s part of an inaugural class of about two dozen paraeducators — and some recent high-school graduates — who will take night and weekend classes at Seattle Central College to study for their teaching certification.

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That path may work for Oliver. In Yakima, both Cortez and Moritz have considered becoming full-time teachers. And both eventually decided that teachers don’t have a monopoly on teaching.

“I do daydream about having my own classroom, but I don’t know if I want to give up hanging out with kids on the playground or talking to them during lunch,” Moritz said. “My relationship wouldn’t be the same, even though the money would be so much better.”

Before the end of the day, Moritz spent about half an hour with the school’s reading coach in a small room with other paraeducators. Huddled over workbooks, the group brainstormed how best to teach a new reading program.

As a final bell rang, Moritz headed to the school’s main entrance, pulled on a fluorescent safety vest and walked outside to conduct traffic.