Washington State University has launched a pilot program to let paraeducators earn a master’s degree in teaching while still working full time.
“Nationally speaking there is a teacher shortage,” said Janet Frost, academic director of the WSU Spokane College of Education and coordinator of the new program. “That’s definitely true in Washington State and the Spokane area.”
The college has been in discussion with Spokane Public Schools and other local districts for years searching for ways to address the shortage, Frost said. The program is open to elementary school paraeducators who have a bachelor’s degree in any subject but no teaching credentials.
“It’s been a couple of years that we’ve been working on development of it,” she said.
Paraeducators are classroom and teaching assistants that typically work with individual students or small groups of students who need learning assistance.
Dozens of people attended an information session in January but only six applied for the program and were accepted. The first two-year program is dedicated to special education paraeducators who want a master’s in teaching with a special education endorsement.
“That’s a particularly dire shortage,” Frost said. “Many of them have been in the schools for a long time. They are really dedicated to those students.”
Retention of new teachers is always an issue, but Frost said she doesn’t expect to have that problem with paraeducators who have already been working in the classroom. “They already know what it’s like,” she said.
Program participants take classes at night, online and during the summer. Thanks to the college’s video conferencing equipment, the students and teacher don’t even have to be in the same room. Students simply have to live within driving distance of one of WSU’s campuses in Spokane, Pullman, Vancouver and the Tri-Cities. “The technology is very helpful,” Frost said.
Though the program is considered a pilot project, Frost said she believes it will continue and a new class of students, called a cohort, could start as early as next summer.
“We know for sure that we will start a new one soon,” she said. “It started out really well. Our intention is to keep admitting cohorts.”
Having only six students in the first group allowed the college to have an easier start with plenty of time to work out any kinks, Frost said. There should be no limit on the size of future groups, however.
“We would be thrilled to have cohorts larger than 30,” she said.
Future sessions will focus on different teaching endorsements, including middle level math, literacy and English language learner. “Those are just some of the possibilities we would like to support people doing,” she said.
Becoming a paraeducator is a good way to work in education without getting a teaching degree first, Frost said. “It’s a great way for people to find out if they’re interested in becoming teachers,” she said.
The college also found an additional benefit of having paraeducators in classes with education students who have not yet been in a classroom. The paraeducators were able to share their experiences, particularly their experiences working with special education students.
“I think they bring a great richness to the things that are happening in our classrooms,” she said. “We’re just delighted to have them.”
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