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News / Clark County News

Pathway to the classroom: iUrban Teen nonprofit aims to address shortage of paraeducators

Fellowship puts young people in area classrooms

By Griffin Reilly, Columbian staff writer
Published: June 29, 2024, 6:05am

Matthew “Matty” Quinn graduated from high school in 2016 without a clear vision for the future. After bouncing between stints at Clark College to various retail jobs, Quinn admits to feeling a bit lost.

“I remember just wanting high school to be over,” said Quinn, who uses the pronoun they. “I just didn’t know what I wanted to do, and college seemed redundant.”

While working as a tour guide at Clark in the fall, Quinn led a group of local middle and high school students through the college’s math and science buildings in an effort to foster interest in the subjects as potential careers.

There, Quinn was approached by leaders from iUrban Teen, a nonprofit helping to organize the event. They told Quinn they might be a good fit for the Future Teachers Pathway Fellowship — an internship-type program where those interested in a career as an educator can get paid to help out in elementary classrooms across Vancouver.

“I think they thought I worked well with the kids,” Quinn said. “It sounded like a really unique opportunity. It was almost serendipitous.”

A year later, Quinn has spent 80 hours in elementary school classrooms in Vancouver Public Schools, getting a feel for life as an educator and support professional.

The experience has helped Quinn realize teaching could be a dream job. Quinn plans to begin studying at Pacific Northwest College of Art this fall to pursue a career as an art teacher.

“I realized I enjoyed the structure of school, especially for someone who’s a little bit more chaotic than most people. It helps center me,” said Quinn, who officially finished the fellowship earlier this month. “It felt like a chance to test out this kind of work without high stakes.”

Quinn’s takeaway from the fellowship is by design, according to fellowship program coordinator Simone Thomas.

“There’s a lack of paraeducators and support professionals,” Thomas said. “This is about creating career pathways to get into the schools, if that’s what they’re interested in.”

Program origins

The fellowship has been a great fit for Vancouver Public Schools, said Mark Wreath, the district’s director of career and college readiness. In his role, Wreath oversees various support programs that help students transition from high school to postsecondary opportunities.

The idea first came from Superintendent Jeff Snell’s office as schools were reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and trying to reengage some of Vancouver’s juniors and seniors who missed out on their final years of high school, Wreath said. At first, federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding paid fellows for their work.

In recent years, Wreath’s district — like others in the region — has struggled to fill paraeducator roles amid post-pandemic economic chaos. After the program’s initial success on a small scale in its first year, Wreath wondered if it could be reimagined to help attract potential educators.

“We thought, ‘What if we turned this more into a teacher recruitment program?’” Wreath said.

The fellowship not only helps develop a pipeline of locally trained educators; it helps develop a more diverse workforce, he noted. Wreath said the program has been wildly popular among students and staff across the district’s elementary schools.

“If nothing else, it’s great exposure for (the fellows),” he said. “What a great way, with a support system, to try something you think you want to do without having to be fully committed. Maybe it lights the fire for these people; maybe it turns into a lifelong passion.”

The fellowship is a 60-hour program that pays fellows $1,000 per stint. Most fellows elect to participate twice, amounting to 120 hours worked over the course of nine months. Quinn worked different hours due to a modified schedule.

“Fellows can complete this on their own time, whether it’s five hours a week or five days a week,” Thomas said.

Thomas and other leaders at iUrban Teen help pair fellows with a school that works best for them, as far as location, demographics or personal preference. Throughout the fellowship, participants are given the opportunity to work with students of varying grade levels.

Quinn said that while they cherished their experience in the program, they’ve realized maybe working with older kids might be a better fit down the line.

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“I answered a question for myself: ‘Could I see myself in front of a class for nine months?’ Yeah, definitely. Just maybe with older kids,” Quinn said with a laugh. “The younger kids have a lot of energy, and coming from me, that’s saying a lot.”

Future growth

Once fellows finish the program, Thomas works with them to take the necessary exams to qualify for paraeducator jobs in Washington. iUrban Teen pays for the cost of the exam and its necessary study materials. Several fellows have been offered jobs from Vancouver Public Schools immediately after completing the fellowship, she said.

This past year, the program had 20 fellows working in Vancouver between September and June. Thomas hopes that number will double for the 2024-25 cycle.

“I see the potential for the program to be very big. It’s just a matter of who we connect with,” Thomas said. “All schools need these programs, even if they’re temporary.”

Funding, of course, remains a challenge.

After federal relief funding expired, iUrban Teen received a grant for $250,000 from the Cowlitz Indian Tribe to continue the program another two years through 2024.

Given its success in Vancouver, both Thomas and Wreath hope the program can procure more long-term funding to expand its reach and get young educators such as Quinn in classrooms across Clark County and Portland.

Even with our reduction in force, there are (paraeducator) positions that still aren’t filled,” Wreath said. “The need is still there and isn’t going away. An expansion of this program would absolutely fulfill that need in Southwest Washington.”