As funding for school districts tightens — including flat allowable growth, the annual measure of how much state funding can increase — there’s at least one area where education is seeing a boom: paraeducation.
During the 2011-12 school year, the most recent for which statewide data is available, Iowa school districts employed 7,290.23 full-time-equivalent paraeducators, 587.52 more than the previous year, the first in which the Iowa Department of Education collected building-level paraprofessional data.
“If there is an uptick, it could possibly be that districts are just going back and filling positions that they left vacant during the economic downturn,” said Mary Jane Cobb, executive director of the Iowa State Education Association, who noted that she had not seen evidence of higher rates of paraprofessionals throughout the state.
The trend is even playing out on a local level, with the Linn-Mar and College Community school districts, which in 2011-12 both had more full-time-equivalent paraprofessionals on staff than at any time in the past decade.
“I believe we are here to support everyone in the classroom,” said Allison Wilhelm, an early learning associate at Coolidge Elementary School in the Cedar Rapids district.
The Cedar Rapids Community School District — which currently employs 444.9 full-time-equivalent teacher aides, a decade high — has 10 different types of paraprofessionals at the elementary level alone. Some of the paras provide additional support for classrooms with high teacher-to-student ratios and others provide targeted instruction for struggling readers.
The number of nonspecial education teacher aides shot up in 2008-09, the district’s first year participating in the Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program, and has continued to increase ever since. The Cedar Rapids district also has seen growth in the number of elementary buildings which are classified as Title I, a federal government designation for schools where 40 percent or more of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Districts receiving Title I funds must provide targeted services for those students. In Cedar Rapids, where 16 of the district’s 21 schools qualify, administrators have called on increasing numbers of paras to deliver that instruction. The result is increased para staffing, even as enrollment continues to decline.
“The majority of the programs that we’ve added have been in response to differentiating instruction for the kids,” said Mary Ellen Maske, associate superintendent for the district. “We believe a very good way to allocate resources is people … The majority of our resources do go to people.”
For many districts, including Linn-Mar and College Community, paras are largely relied on in a special education and classroom capacities, as opposed to Title I programming. Administrators in both districts, as well as Cedar Rapids, hesitated to point to one specific cause for the increase in para positions, but all three cited student need as a contributing factor.
“I think it’s more complex than just looking at numbers,” said Cheryl Kiburz, director of student services for the College Community district. “First of all, the enrollment overall has increased, so we are serving more students. I would also think that the increase is due to the more complex need from our students.”
In essence, it isn’t just that the pool is wider. It’s deeper.
Students who receive special education services each have individualized education plans, which a committee develops to determine and outline what support students need — such as additional instruction or supervision from a paraprofessional — in order to learn effectively.
“If you look at our numbers of students served with IEPs, we have stayed at pretty much 10 percent of our student population,” said Julie Jensen, executive director of student services for Linn-Mar. “I would say the numbers haven’t really increased but the students’ needs have become more prevalent.”
Jensen was uncertain whether the need for paraeducators will continue to grow in her district.
“I think, like many things in our school, it will all depend on budgets and how much our budgets are going to allow for that, which comes right to state legislators and the funding resources we have for education,” she said.