Walk through any school in our state and you’re guaranteed to find a paraeducator delivering instruction to English language learners in small groups, helping one or more students with disabilities in the classroom, or teaching reading to students who need extra help. That’s because over the past 20 years, the role of paraeducator in our schools has changed a lot. In fact, even the title has changed. What used to be called the “lunch lady” or “recess helper” has now become “instructional assistant” or more commonly, “paraeducator.”
As the parent of a child with a disability, and someone who is inside our schools on a regular basis volunteering, I’ve seen firsthand the remarkable work these paraeducators do. But the reality is that overall, our school systems and our state don’t do a very good job supporting these professionals. Despite the fact that paraeducators are on the front lines in our schools every day working with some of our highest needs students, for the most part paraeducators are provided little training and no formal path for certification or advancement.
In the upcoming legislative session, the state’s largest paraeducator union hopes to change that through legislation that would provide a career path and better training for them. Doug Nelson, government relations director for Public School Employees of Washington, described it this way to the Tri-Cities Herald (as reporter by Ty Beaver): “Our point is, are these paras important or just throwaway positions? If you were in the private sector, you would not design a system like this.”