On a cold and windy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, in downtown Minneapolis, Education Support Professionals, those who work in schools and classrooms supporting educators and teachers in the classroom, also known as paraeducators, and their allies rallied for “higher pay and benefits.”
Many paras held signs that read, “One Job Should Be Enough” or “ESPs need a living wage now,” a common concern of paraeducators who find themselves working multiple jobs to afford their work in education. Also rallying were hourly workers for Minneapolis Public Schools with the local SEIU and AFSCME chapter.
“How do they think schools could happen without paraeducators? We know those kids better than some of their own parents. Some of our paras see the kids we work with better than their own kids because they are working two or three jobs,” said Londel French, a former paraeducator with Minneapolis Public Schools and the current Racial Equity Coordinator for Education Minnesota, the state’s largest teacher’s union.
The rally’s speakers, including French, connected the lack of investment in public schools to the challenges educators and paraeducators face.
“For 19 years, I was a paraeducator. You get up, you love your job, knowing you have an impact on kids, but you cannot pay your bills. I know when April, May comes along we start worrying about what to do when summer comes around,” said French. “That ain’t right. Education Support Professionals are some of the first people your kids see when they come to school every day and the last ones they see when they go home.”
Recently elected councilmember Robin Wonsley Worlobah, who is a former education organizer in Minneapolis, also spoke at the rally.
“We cannot and must not give up. I know that many are tired and frustrated, and justifiably angry. For years, [paraeducators] have had to work within an inequitable education system, collapsing in front of our eyes with each passing day,” said Worlobah.
Paraeducators typically fill in the gaps in classrooms and schools. Some paras might work in special education classrooms; others cover recess or school lunch. You’ll find paraeducators across schools and across all grades. Though the work has always been challenging, it has only gotten more difficult since the beginning of the pandemic. The problems they face—namely low pay and too few paraeducators—have been exacerbated by COVID-19 and the worker shortage.
“We figured this out. The last two years, the people who weren’t so essential before are essential now. All of a sudden, we cannot move this country forward without certain people. But as soon as we talk about compensating people, ‘Oh, you’re not essential. We can probably get along without you,” said French. “We don’t have a shortage of Education Support Professionals in our district; we have an unwillingness to pay people the proper pay that they should be paid.”
Paraeducators in Minnesota make between $11-18 per hour on average, for an average of six hours per day. In comparison, substitute teachers are usually paid about $140 per day, and a new teacher makes approximately just over $40,000 per year.
Paraeducators are one of the groups waiting for “hero pay” funding from the Minnesota State Legislature, but negotiations have been stalled for months. According to Education Minnesota, paraeducators and other ESPs were most likely to be in the physical schools during the COVID-19 pandemic stay-at-home order.
“There was just such anxiety about going to work every day. Working short-handed in the best of circumstances in special education is a challenge. Then of course you had COVID in there, and just wanting to make sure you’re trying to be safe and keep the students safe, because it’s of course just not about you,” said Jen Gajeski, a Forest Lake paraeducator who provides instructional support to specific students, according to earlier reporting from Prism.
There is a considerable variety in the work that paras do. Some work in special education, some support traditional classroom instruction, and others support other staff issues. The work varies within this large field and may even change day-to-day.
“Generally, I’m told what school to go through each day. I work with kids who are struggling behaviorally or mental health-wise, so our team goes in, and we observe, and we work with the students and the staff there, the paras, to train them in the methods that we use,” said Shannon Barrett, a Rochester, Minnesota-based paraeducator. “I get to be at any one of 16 elementary schools. I travel and get to meet a lot of paras.”
There are approximately 20,000 paraeducator positions across Minnesota schools. According to the Minnesota Department of Education, paraeducator duties include, but are not limited to, instructional or educational assistance as well as “language translation, family engagement, student personal care, behavior management, technical support for computers, cafeteria or playground supervision, food service, [and] clerical support.” The State of Minnesota has spent recent years investing financially into Grow Your Own programs as part of a statewide effort to increase the number of teachers and assistant teachers of color in Minnesota schools. In July 2021, Sahan Journal, citing census data, reported that paraeducators across the country, including Minnesota, are more racially and ethnically diverse than educators.
There is little specific statewide data on the paraeducator shortage, though there is plenty of local reporting. In October, the Rochester Post-Bulletin reported 82 open paraeducator positions in Rochester, with 45 for special education positions. Minnesota’s largest school district, Anoka-Hennepin, recently added extra days to their winter break to give faculty and staff, including paraeducators, additional days off as a mental health break. And KARE11 reported in November that every department within the South Washington County School District is hiring, including paraeducators.
According to Barrett and paraeducator Sally Dunbar, two of the biggest challenges facing paras are low pay and the worker shortage. The third issue is a lack of respect.
“There’s a lot of feelings of not being appreciated. Paras are at the bottom of the totem pole in the school system. We are always the last ones to be informed on what’s happening. We are not included in staff meetings because they don’t have the funds to pay us,” said Dunbar, a Rochester para. “It just feels like we’re working really hard, and no one recognizes that.”
“One of the biggest challenges is being able to afford to live. It is impossible to survive on this salary,” said Barrett, who supervises a group of paraeducators. “We get summers off, I tell people to get a job for three months. Our people work as a para all day, and then they work another job at night.”
Barrett also notes that the low pay is one reason that paraeducators have been leaving their jobs in droves, even if the exact data is unavailable.
“For now, not just in Rochester, but statewide really, there’s a shortage of paras. And part of that is because, over COVID, they decided that it’s better to work one job that is OK than to work a job they absolutely love in a school district and still have to go to an OK job just to afford to live,” said Barrett.
The Minnesota State Legislature has committed funds to the development and recruitment of teachers and assistant teachers of diverse backgrounds, but the shortages continue. The state budget passed in 2021 includes $10 million for special education support as part of a $35 million package dedicated to training and hiring teachers of color across the state.
Teacher Assistants (a form of paraeducator) are also calling on other paraeducators to fight for recognition and respect of their work. Tequila Laramee, a paraeducator and the 2021-22 Education Support Professional of the Year in the Minneapolis Public Schools, discussed the issues facing paraeducators in her ESP award acceptance letter.
“I stand up and speak for what I believe in, for what ESPs deserve and for our students. I show up, work hard, and do my best at whatever it is I am doing,” Laramee said. “I find many ESPs also being too busy and not having the time to be involved. I believe it is so important to be involved, because we’re not just fighting for ourselves, we’re fighting for the safety and education of our students. They are our future.”