Carolin Quist starts every day in her Parkview Elementary class for special education students with motion.
Her fifth-graders imitate a dance routine shown on a screen, as Quist and two education assistants — Bonnie Welch and Jenniffer Wardell — exaggerate their moves, making the seven children smile and laugh.
Later, the class splits into groups. Two boys work on a math worksheet with Wardell. Quist sits with a girl for a matching activity. Other kids practice reading with Welch.
Having all three staffers in the Salt Lake City classroom, working together, allows them to provide students with the special education that is best for them individually.
Quist feels lucky, she said, to have such skilled, dedicated assistants. Most schools in the Salt Lake City School District can’t convince candidates for special education classroom positions to interview for the job — let alone hire them.
There are 40 special education assistant positions, overall, that haven’t been filled in the district, spokesperson Yándary Chatwin said. Granite, Canyons and Murray school districts also report that special education paraeducator positions have been especially difficult to hire for this school year, during a nationwide labor shortage.
Paraeducators, who generally need a high school diploma or the equivalent and to pass a background check, help students under a teacher’s supervision. Retaining them has been a challenge for years in many districts in Utah, said Nicole Suchey, a vice principal at Emerson Elementary.
But the main driver behind the current shortage in Salt Lake City is that employees who left because of the COVID-19 pandemic never came back, said Suchey, who used to work as the district’s coordinator over special education.
The district has given teachers raises to combat turnover, Suchey said, but to hire paraeducators, it’s been difficult for it to compete with entry-level positions in other industries. A paraeducator, for instance, is often making less than an Amazon delivery driver.
“It’s hard when you don’t get benefits,” Suchey said. “And I think people during COVID probably wanted more of that, but it’s incredibly expensive.”
To help draw more people to apply, the Salt Lake City school board recently approved giving paraprofessionals full-time hours, access to health benefits and a $1-per-hour raise, to $18.50.
The plan will pay for 20 full-time paraeducator positions, though about 11 of those positions are technically already filled, said Logan Hall, the district’s human resources director. The changes will cost the district about $50,000, Business Administrator Alan Kearsley said.
‘Desperate need’ around the valley
Granite School District is seeking 170 paraeducators, plus 16 special education teachers, spokesperson Ben Horsley said. The district is weighing changing its pay structures for paraprofessionals and teachers.
“People are just looking for where the grass might potentially be greener,” Horsley said. “... That’s why we’re reevaluating.”
Canyons School district has increased starting pay for paraeducators to $15 or $16 an hour, depending on applicant’s level of education — but it’s still down about 25% of the employees it needs, said Nate Edvalson, director of special education.
Canyons is using funds allocated for those open positions to keep current employees, through raises and stipends. Employees who refer a friend who works as a paraeducator for at least 90 days receive a $500 stipend.
Hiring paraeducators has been a struggle for the district for years, Edvalson said, even as the district has developed partnerships to encourage college psychology students to work for Canyons.
Murray School District is “in desperate need” of paraeducators, especially in special education classes, spokesperson Doug Perry said. The district has around 15 open positions for aides, which Perry said is double or triple the number of openings that Murray has faced in years past.
Retaining employees has been a challenge since the position is not full-time and does not offer health benefits. “Working with the Legislature to increase funding would be a huge step,” Perry said.
Jordan School District has hired 100 paraeducators since the beginning of the school year, but it’s still looking for more, spokesperson Sandy Riesgraf said. The district has extended hours for current assistants.
Shifting to fill gaps
The Salt Lake City School District tried again to hire paraeducators after increasing its pay in July. Randy Miller, the principal of Franklin Elementary School, snatched up the only qualified candidate who applied.
“Oh, you got her?” fellow administrators exclaimed jealously at their annual conference, Miller recalled.
Franklin is a “hub school” in the district, which means kids who need extra assistance are bused in from around the west side — about 40 in all. The school also provides resources for about 23 students who live in the neighborhood, Miller said.
Adding in the 15 or so children on a speech plan, just under a quarter of the school’s population of about 270 has an individualized education plan, or IEP.
The school is funded for eight teachers and 10 paraeducators in special education, Miller said. Right now, there are only six teachers and six paraeducators in the program.
This means teachers are shifting their roles. One who spent all summer preparing to help second graders, for example, is instead helping kids at all grade levels who need extra help and live in Franklin’s boundaries. The teacher who would normally cover that role, called the resource teacher, is filling in for the fourth grade, where the teaching position is vacant.
In Quist’s classroom at Parkview, several applicants for paraeducator positions made it through the interview process only to disappear when it came time to sign their contract. She tries to recruit cashiers when she goes to the grocery store, but none of them have applied to her school yet.
‘The most incredible moment’
Quist begins planning for each year’s worth of fourth and fifth graders well before the fall arrives. She maps out the goals in their IEPs on a massive whiteboard at her home.
Since fifth grade is the last year in elementary school for these students, she said, it’s important for them to retain number values and literacy skills before they move on to middle school.
Welch retired in 2009 after teaching sixth grade for 25 years; as a paraeducator now, she often works with students who are progressing toward studying in a traditional classroom. And Quist leans heavily on Wardell with math because she “helps kids that are stuck,” the teacher said.
Wardell, a freelance film reviewer, has another special skill. The student who gets the most points at the end of the day — for things like raising their hand or helping a friend — earns a two-part reward: a toy from the prize box and a sound effect from Wardell.
She turns her head up, lifts her arms high and lets out a howl to demonstrate her most requested sound: the wolf. The children laugh.
Welch and Wardell say that working as a paraeducator is as rewarding and flexible a job as they’ve ever had. But the pay isn’t enough for many.
“I would love to make enough money where I could say, ‘I don’t have to worry about second jobs,’” Wardell said. “...If I could make enough to just earn a living as a para[educator], I would do it the rest of my life.”
The ultimate benefit of the job, Welch and Wardell said, is being with the kids. “There’s just something about their little spirits,” Welch said.
Wardell loves to see the way a child’s eyes light up when a math concept they’ve been stuck on comes together in their mind.
“It’s the most incredible moment,” Wardell said. “And I would put up with pretty much anything for the opportunity to experience that.”
BECOMING A PARAEDUCATOR
To be a paraeducator, candidates need to have a high school diploma or its equivalent and pass a background check.
Candidates can apply to be paraeducators for Salt Lake City School District and other districts on district websites.