COLORADO SPRINGS — School districts continue to grapple with teacher and substitute shortages, but now they're sounding the alarm on the shortage of paraprofessionals.
The Da Vinci Academy in Academy School District 20 typically has seven paraprofessionals along with a teacher for the Communication and Social Development Program. The team serves eighteen students, kindergarten through eighth grade.
Administrators say several paraprofessionals have resigned, and there are currently only three.
"We found out (about the shortage) at the end of December when two of the paraprofessionals were leaving. Tatum had a really rough week and that was very concerning to me and Graeme. Fast forward to January, and we found out her favorite paraprofessional was leaving and that was a hit for me. I really wanted to do everything I could to help not only my daughter but all of the kids involved in this," said Hollee Winder, Da Vinci Academy Parent.
Graeme and Hollee Winder say it was devastating to hear their daughter's favorite paraprofessional was resigning, especially since they share a strong bond.
"Today, I had to tell her that it was Mrs. A's last day. She got really upset, and it's heartbreaking to watch my child suffer because of something that could have been done a long time ago," said Hollie.
She says her daughter's paraprofessionals have helped her make major improvements.
"The first year we started, we were having struggles with Tatum and trying to get into a routine. This year it's been a huge change in Tatum, and she's grown with her paras and formed that bond last year and growing into that. Now that's going to be pulled away from her, I'm very concerned," said Hollie.
"Another thing, the paras can help us at home utilize the same techniques that the paras use at the school and we can keep that consistency going on at home. She responds very well," said Graeme.
The couple says the district has done a great job in addressing some of their concerns with the shortage.
"As we've dug deeper into this, we were pretty amazed and shocked with what we were discovering. This is not just a problem in this district, it's a statewide and countrywide problem. From the state level, we were seeing that one of the biggest problems was the salary structure. We were looking at what the state was doing to address these issues, and it turns out we are near the bottom of the pack when it comes to education spending. That is unacceptable because we looked at what a para does day in and day out, and the amount of training and duties that they have is overwhelming," said Graeme.
"When we do an interview, they fall in love with our school, kids, and the program. They say we would love to work with you and then they see what they'll be making an hour and they just can't take that pay cut. I had one person say I just can't work for $5 less an hour, my family can't survive on that and so she declined our offer. It's happened more than once, and it's one of the barriers for filling these positions," said Victory Molina, Principal of The Da Vinci Academy.
Molina says low pay, heavy workloads, and the physical and emotional strain of the job are taking a toll on support staff.
"Our students with high needs have experienced a lot during the pandemic. We're seeing these students have higher emotional needs, higher physical needs, and there's some regression with students. Students who use to be potty trained, now aren't and students who use to be able to participate in a classroom for a limited amount of time independently now aren't able to do that. They require even more help," said Molina. "We have a program that is a Communication and Social Development Program. It is a specialized program within our special education department and one of four in our district. It is a magnet for students who show that they need that particular support. and that's more than they would get in other special education programs."
She says they've been working with other departments in District 20 to find solutions.
"We have talked about a variety of different options. Changing the structure of the program itself, asked parents to come in and volunteer, and put out a call to all of the other schools in our district to ask and see if there are any staff members that would be willing to come in," said Molina.
"As a teacher that has impacted me and our students because I am only one person and I can't run the program myself. I have to have paraprofessional support to meet the needs of students. It doesn't matter if I come in and stay late, if I don't have bodies that are trained and that can work with this special population then the program flounders and we can't thrive in the way that we were able to before the pandemic began," said Sarah Zellmer.
She says they've had to cut some programs in the Communication and Social Development Program due to the shortage.
"We've had to pull back on teaching individual work skills, and we haven't had one social group this year. Personally, I am working more hours. Before, during, and after to make up for the lack of support that we desperately need," said Zellmer. "We are not able to take care of ourselves because there are no breaks, no planning times, no lunch breaks."
"Right now, education is in the midst of a crisis. We're not just staring down a crisis, we're really in the middle. We have staffing shortages across the board, transportation, teaching, and now paraprofessionals. It's really impacting every inch of what we do," said Allison Cortez, Chief Communications Officer for Academy School District 20.
Currently, the district has more than 200 open positions.
"We are more actively recruiting than we have in the past, we have a job fair for teachers and classified staff coming up March 5, we are re-evaluating those positions. That's one step in filling those positions, but the other step is the inequity in pay for educators. We know that teacher rates have not kept up with those other types of positions that were paid the same. That's a challenge bigger than our district, bigger than our region. That's something as a country we're going to need to decide how do we honor and compensate our teachers for the hard work that they do. That's a bigger conversation, and it's going to take a whole community to come together and fix that," said Cortez.
"I have faith in the district that they're going to make positive changes with this. It is unacceptable to have a payment of $500 after health insurance and taxes are removed from the paycheck. That's not doable for any family per month. $500 per month is crazy to me, you can't survive off of that, and that's why you see many of them quitting or moving to other states," said Hollee. "What is our state going to look like if the state of Colorado does not do something about this. I think it's important that everyone knows about the issues going on and I think a lot of people have been focused on COVID-19 and not this. It's time this get recognized."
To thank the staff for their perseverance and dedication, the Board of Education endorsed a one-time bonus for staff. The bonus is for regular staff and long-term subs and PERA retirees who have continuous service from Nov. 1, 2021 (or before), through Jan. 21, 2022.
One-time Bonus Amounts
- Full-time or greater (1.0 FTE or more) = $1,700
- Half-time, but less than full-time (FTE 0.5 - 0.99) = $1,275
- Less than half-time (FTE 0.01 - 0.49) = $850
For anyone interested in becoming a paraprofessional in the district, visit this website.