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News / Clark County News

Overworked and under-recognized: Clark County schools struggle to hire and retain paraeducators

Officials say critical support positions underfunded

By Griffin Reilly, Columbian staff writer
Published: March 9, 2024, 6:14am
15 Photos
Paraeducator Michelle Dever talks about leading the social and emotional learning center at Daybreak Middle School. Throughout the day, Daybreak students visit the center either by their teacher&rsquo;s request or on their own volition to regulate emotions or talk through an issue with Dever.
Paraeducator Michelle Dever talks about leading the social and emotional learning center at Daybreak Middle School. Throughout the day, Daybreak students visit the center either by their teacher’s request or on their own volition to regulate emotions or talk through an issue with Dever. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Today’s classroom has a new linchpin: paraeducators.

Formerly known as “teacher assistants,” the role has expanded to help with growing class sizes, increased special education programs and students’ social-emotional struggles.

And yet, school staff across Clark County and beyond agree: Paraeducators are overworked and underpaid. Districts struggle to hire and retain workers for the 30-hour-a-week, 10-month-a-year positions with wages between $20 to $24 an hour. Most school leaders say the root of the problem is the state’s failure to recognize paraeducators’ importance in the classroom and provide adequate funding for them.

To see paraeducators’ reach, peek inside the “Dragon Den” at Daybreak Middle School in Battle Ground. Named for the school’s mascot, it’s Daybreak’s social-emotional learning center, run by paraeducator Michelle Dever.

She’s there to address critical behavioral issues that emerged after the COVID-19 pandemic. Students come and go throughout the day to regulate emotions or talk through problems with Dever, either of their own volition or as requested by their classroom teachers.

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Gov. Jay Inslee, second from right, and his wife, Trudi, meet with local teachers, parents, administrators and staff to talk about special education challenges at Ogden Elementary School on Feb. 9.Washington Lawmakers, Gov. Inslee aim to help paraeducators
Representatives from Vancouver Public Schools met with Gov. Jay Inslee in early February to showcase Ogden Elementary School’s paraeducators and special education services.

While Dever has a specific caseload of students with advanced behavioral issues to monitor, she’s quick to assert her real caseload is much larger.

“I’m here for everyone in the building,” said Dever, who’s worked as a paraeducator in Battle Ground for more than two decades. “Ten minutes is key — when students come in here, I think my goal is to get them back in the classroom in 10 minutes.”

Just before the end of a late February school day, a student wandered into the Dragon Den. Each day, the student is required to check in and check out with Dever. At the end of the day, he showed Dever a slip of paper with comments from his teachers on how his day went.

“It looks like you had a perfect day,” Dever said, while opening up a drawer next to her desk packed with treats and fidget toys. After brief deliberation, the student grabbed a small pack of Smarties candies.

Two more kids came in and exchanged forms detailing their day with Dever. In addition to praise for their behavior, she offers treats and Dragon Dollars. Five Dragon Dollars, for example, gets a student a snack or drink at the school store upstairs. All of the prizes are donated by the community, Dever said. The system has transformed some of Daybreak’s most challenged students.

“My relationship with each one is strong,” Dever said. “Every kid that walks in this room trusts me.”

Finding candidates

Programs like the Dragon Den require paraeducators to staff them. Yet, every major school district in Clark County has vacant paraeducator positions — whether just a handful or dozens.

Evergreen Public Schools, for example, has about 70 vacant paraeducator positions posted online as of early March. New positions have popped up weekly since the start of the school year. For perspective, Evergreen maintains about 540 paraeducator positions in total.

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Ellen Wiessner, the district’s executive director of special services, attributes the vacancies to a tight job market and lackluster compensation.

“The pool is small. There’s not as many people looking for work,” said Wiessner, who worked in Battle Ground for 30 years before joining Evergreen this year. “It’s not a position where someone can make a living wage. It’s a part-time position. … Those are some things that just create barriers to finding people.”

Despite the dozens of vacancies, Wiessner downplayed the weight those openings have on the larger Evergreen system.

“While it looks like there are a lot of positions open, you really are talking about one or two positions in a school,” she said. “That creates some strain, but not as much of a strain. There are ways that we can adjust staffing to cover what needs to get covered.”

Vancouver Public Schools, the second biggest district in the region behind Evergreen, has more than a dozen vacant paraeducator positions. District leaders said in order to deal with the shortage, they pivoted to contracting staff through a health care staffing company called Maxim.

The move isn’t a long-term model for staffing the positions, a district spokesperson said, and the goal is ultimately to hire some of the contractors as full-time Vancouver employees after six months or so.

“I think we’ve been very lucky that coming out of the pandemic we’ve been able to contract with agencies to fill out (paraeducator) needs that we weren’t able to get through our own channels,” said Jami Phelps, Vancouver’s director of special services. “It’s been a nice partnership for recruiting.”

New education model

Staff say paraeducators are especially important to the success of schools’ special education programs, as many of them work one-on-one with students throughout the day.

In 2019, Washington began rolling out a new approach to special education called the Inclusionary Practices Professional Development Project. In short, the model sought to increase special education students’ time in the general education setting to better expose both populations of students to one another.

The key to the model’s success, however, is providing enough support staff to ensure that special education students in general education settings have a paraeducator with them to ensure their needs are met. The combination of students’ increased needs for social and emotional support and limited funding for paraeducators has challenged the viability of the model, according to staff.

Vancouver, for example, has not yet employed the model. Phelps said district staff believe it’s still best for their students to receive the “full spectrum of services” available in special education.

This year is the first year the Hockinson School District has used the model. Before its adoption last year, many special education students were still spending a lot of their time in separate rooms with just a paraeducator or handful of other students, according to Hockinson special services director Keila Dean. One Hockinson paraeducator, Jill Sarkinen, said the experience was difficult for the third-grade student with whom she worked one-on-one. He’d rarely want to leave the resource room where larger groups of students were present.

“He really struggled,” said Sarkinen, who is now in her fifth year as a paraeducator in the district. This year, with her help and more regular time with other students, he’s blossomed.

The rollout of the new approach this school year didn’t come without its kinks, however.

Every six weeks, paraeducators meet with building administrators to reflect on their placements. Sometimes, they voiced an urge to switch assignments due to overload, Dean said.

“I can’t imagine a classroom without paraeducators,” said Michelle Preston, a first-year Hockinson paraeducator. Preston works with Calla, a first-grader who uses a wheelchair, to provide her extra assistance with writing and assignment instructions.

“There have been times before where a student had behavioral issues and episodes and I couldn’t imagine one teacher handling that situation by themselves,” she said.

Challenging behaviors

On a February day at Hockinson Heights Elementary School, Sarkinen’s student, a third-grader, had just finished his bag of popcorn and went to wash his hands so he could get back to work. Unfortunately, on his way back to his seat, he bumped his head on the paper towel dispenser.

“You all right?” Sarkinen asked the third-grader as she felt his scalp for a wound.

The student decided he needed a moment to recalibrate and use the restroom. Sarkinen agreed, and the two went for a brief walk while his classmates continued with their work.

Sarkinen spends most of her day with a third-grader who has an individualized education plan that provides him additional help in and between classes throughout the day. Here and there, Sarkinen drifted from his desk to assist other students while their teacher, Natalia Kristofferson, worked with a smaller group of students on a writing project. Another paraeducator, Nichole Ervin, also helped students.

This classroom is close to what Dean describes as the “dream scenario.” There, the teacher is able to transition from teaching the whole class to working in small groups, all while at least one other support staffer is able to field student needs as they arise — whether it be academic or behavioral.

“It takes a special person to be a paraeducator,” Dean said. “You have to be a jack-of-all-trades.”

While Hockinson only has a handful of vacant paraeducator positions, Dean said it’s a serious issue at Hockinson Heights — the biggest elementary school in Clark County. The success of Sarkinen and other paraeducators’ work proves the positions are critical and needed everywhere, she said.

“There’s been more turnover in recent years. But the vast majority isn’t related to student work — these people love their students. It’s related to the pay or others pursuing other careers,” Dean said. “We just aren’t getting applicants, and that’s really hard.”

Burnout and stress

Despite Dever’s and Sarkinen’s passion for their work, everyone hits a limit, they said. That element of burnout is a key factor contributing to the positions’ high turnover.

“How do I cope? I have an hour before my youngest kid gets home. I take that hour for myself,” Sarkinen said. “I read, sit in the sun. I’ll just sit in my car at the middle school and wait for school to end.”

Dever said she sometimes spends 30 minutes totally alone when she gets home.

“With this job, it’s all mental. You’re taking all their pain and suffering and talking them through it,” she said. “I’m learning how much my emotions are playing into it. I’d go home exhausted.”

For many paraeducators, however, treating burnout requires more than a moment of evening relaxation.

Ellen Townsen left her job as a special education paraeducator in Evergreen Public Schools last summer. In her seven years on the job, Townsen largely worked with students with autism. A former English teacher, she said the job was a second career for her — a way to pursue helping people that would “fill her soul.”

“It was very gratifying for me. I felt I could make a difference,” Townsen said. “As a teacher, you’re spread pretty darn thin. You don’t always have the luxury working with a small group of kids or one kid.”

However, Townsen realized how quickly she and other paraeducators were growing overwhelmed as student behavioral needs increased.

“Every single classroom I was in, I could point to five more kids who should be on my caseload,” she said. “That was just the way it is.”

At least once a week, Townsen said, she’d have to pivot to cover the work of another paraeducator who was out for the day. Responsibilities piled up quickly, and it usually meant that at least one child on her or another paraeducator’s caseload went underserved that day.

In the spring of 2023, Townsen hit her breaking point. Then in her fourth year working with a cohort of students with autism, Townsen said she learned certain district online learning programs were allowing students to graduate with abysmal attendance rates. Exhausted from her hardest year yet, Townsen said it was the last straw, and gave her a feeling that the hard work she and others had been doing to get students to graduate was unappreciated.

“I just thought, ‘What am I doing here? Why do you need me if at the end of each year you’re going to graduate these kids despite how we work our asses off for them?’” Townsen said. “I was pretty demoralized by that.”

Today, she works as a signature verifier for Clark County Elections.

Staff advocacy

Unions in recent years have advocated for paraeducators to receive higher wages and more collaboration time with teachers. Mindy Troffer-Cooper, the president of Evergreen’s classified staff union, said she’s repeated stories from frustrated paraeducators to district leaders for years.

Now in her 15th year, Troffer-Cooper has held some of the toughest paraeducator positions possible while also working one or two other jobs on the side. In her time as a school bus assistant, Troffer-Cooper said she routinely suffered physical injuries dealing with rowdy students or breaking up fights.

“I tell paraeducators, every time you are assaulted, whether it’s a punch in the arm, you need to document it,” she said. “Sometimes, you don’t think it’s going to be as big of a deal as it is. But it’s the only way you can track these kids hurting people so (district leaders) can see these kids need more help.”

The solution to the issue, Troffer-Cooper said, is to get more funding to hire and retain more paraeducators to help students struggling to regulate their emotions.

“I hope that the state does better and the district does better,” Troffer-Cooper said. “Because, if they don’t, this crisis is only going to get worse. And ultimately, the kids will pay the price for it.”

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