Schools struggle to find enough Para Educators

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You've heard about the teacher shortage, even a school bus driver shortage.  But there's another position in your child's school that educators say is vitally important and districts across Kansas are struggling to fill.

"It's very important to have the paras around, to have that one on one.  They need that extra attention, that extra focus," said Allyson Benefield about her students.

In the mainstreamed classroom, which includes special education students, students with behavioral problems and gifted students alongside general education students, the para educator helps make sure everyone keeps up.

For paras like Benefield it's a labor of love.

"I really like helping them learn and watching them learn new things," she said.

But finding those paras is getting harder.  As of Tuesday afternoon, KAKE News found roughly 250 unfilled para educator positions across Sedgwick County, 135.5 of them with the Sedgwick County Special Education Cooperative which provides paras for nine districts in the county.

"It's just been a steady increase," said Dr. Karen Kuhn with the Coop, who said 100 to 120 empty positions would be normal this time of year, but that number has been going up recently.

She says a survey last year of the nearly 700 paras the Coop employs showed vastly different reasons for whether to stick with the job or leave.  Those who last longer than three or four years cite a family friendly schedule, getting along with co-workers and the joy of working with the kids.  Those who leave tended to talk about money and benefits, an area where school districts are struggling to compete.

"In some of those communities, such as Maize, there's so much competition that is in such close proximity for them that they're competing with probably places that are paying $12, $15 an hour," she said.  "Where our starting pay is $10 an hour."

The Kansas Association of School Boards sees the same trend in most education jobs right now.  Even as pay is rising with increased funding, the improved economy is leading to increased staffing shortages at many schools.

And all that's before one considers the difficulties of a para's job.

"There are challenges in working with students with special needs and we have some students that require a lot of support," Dr. Kuhn said.

"It is hard.  It does test your patience.  Especially with the different kinds of kids that you work with and then you're working with the kids and the teachers and the teacher that you work for and the coop and the school.  So you're essentially working for multiple people," Benefield said.

She adds the shortage of paras during the school year makes the job even more difficult at times, for her and for the kids who need a structured routine.

"The last few years there've been a lot of vacancies," she said.  "We had to take multiple kids to different classes and then bounce from classroom to through lunches, sometimes."

But she says, the benefits of the job outweigh the negatives for her.

"When it gets tough I just laugh because it's all you can do," Benefield said.  "(The students) deserve the help that they get.  It's not fair to them to struggle through school.  It's a really rewarding job.  I love it."

Not only are districts struggling to find para educators, they need more of them as the number of students in special education classes is steadily increasing.

Many districts are resorting to job fairs this month to help fill all their empty positions, from paras to bus drivers and custodians.