A paraprofessional puts her hand over a student's
Kimberly Mallinson, a paraprofessional in the Raymore-Peculiar School District, helps a student press down a stamp during a cardmaking activity Feb. 10 at Raymore-Peculiar High School. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

Every school day, Kimberly Mallinson helps high school students with special needs study math and language arts, practice daily living and job skills, and even run a business selling snacks and drinks. 

As a paraprofessional in the Raymore-Peculiar School District, she has an inside view of education. Paraprofessionals, known in classrooms as “paras,” assist the lead teacher, often providing extra support as part of the individualized education plans for students with special needs. 

Mallinson’s experience working with students has solidified her goal to become a special education teacher, ideally in the school where she already works. 

Pathways for Paras, a program at Missouri State University that helps working paras become certified as special education teachers, has put that goal within reach. 

Mallinson said the program is affordable with scholarships and grants and flexible enough for her busy schedule. She’s enjoying her classes and expects to complete a master’s degree in special education next May.

Christy Milford’s path forward isn’t as clear. 

Milford is a resource paraprofessional for elementary students in the Shawnee Mission School District.

She wants to become a teacher but hasn’t yet found a program that is affordable, allows her to keep working while she studies and qualifies her to teach her preferred grade level and topic. 

“It’s looking like it might be more difficult to become a teacher than I thought it was going to be in the first place,” Milford said. 

Amid concerns about a teacher shortage, some programs — like Pathways for Paras — have found innovative ways to make teacher certification more accessible. 

But Susana Elizarraraz, deputy director of the Latinx Education Collaborative, said though more flexible options are emerging, there’s still work to do to address unique situations. 

“I think the system is really good at these cookie-cutter scenarios,” she said. “… But when it comes to folks who need something completely unique, there’s still a lot of barriers for those folks.”

Why a paraprofessional can become a strong teacher 

Reesha Adamson said there are several reasons that paraprofessionals are prepared to become teachers. 

Adamson, who helps direct Pathways for Paras, is an associate dean of the College of Education at Missouri State and an associate professor of counseling, leadership and special education.

Working as a para provides direct experience of some components of the role, which can be especially helpful if the lead teacher explains the logic behind certain tasks, she said. 

Mallinson, who is in her fourth year as a para and has also been a substitute teacher, said it’s helpful to see the principles she’s learning about in her coursework “in action.”

“I think it’s preparing me better to be a teacher just because I am kind of already immersed in it,” she said.  

Paras may also be well-positioned to assess whether working in a classroom is a good fit in the long term, Adamson said.  

“If you have somebody that already understands the challenges of that role, and has a desire to be there, it’s a lot easier to see how they may be retained within that position for longer,” she said.  

Milford, who initially didn’t realize how much she would like working with children, finds the para role very “rewarding.”

“You have to have immense amounts of patience, because a lot of the students have emotional issues where they have outbursts, or sometimes they’re just defiant, they don’t want to do what they’re told,” she said. “…I’ve found that my patience is growing every single day.”

Elizarraraz said paras are often dedicated to working in schools, despite having other options. 

“There are these entry-level things that these folks could be doing that have kind of an easier pathway to moving up into management positions and things like that,” she said. “But when I talk to these folks, it was, ‘I want to be in a school setting,’ right? ‘I’m willing to make $25,000 a year, because I want to be around kids, I want to teach kids.’”

The Latinx Education Collaborative focuses on increasing representation of Latinx educators in K-12 schools. 

One of its particular interests is helping paraprofessionals overcome barriers to becoming a teacher, said Uzziel Pecina, the nonprofit’s vice president of pipeline programs. 

“Paras are uniquely situated to be committed to the particular school,” he said. “They know the culture, they obviously help with the climate. They know the kids, they know the families, many times come with community skills, cultural competencies.” 

Pathways for Paras 

Missouri State’s Pathways for Paras program is designed to reduce financial barriers and to be completed by working professionals. 

The original version of the program was only available locally, but Adamson said it expanded last spring to include more than 200 students from around the state. It also became a registered apprenticeship with the U.S. Department of Labor, which opens opportunities for financial aid.  

Through the program, students with an associate degree can earn their four-year degree and teaching certification in special education. Those who have a bachelor’s degree in another field can become certified through a master’s in special education. 

Participants must work as paras in a Missouri school district and be approved by their school principal. They can fulfill their professional experience requirements through their job as a para rather than having to spend a semester working as an unpaid student teacher. 

Adamson said school districts can partner with the program and teach up to half of the courses. Any courses taught by the district are free, except for a small fee for grading the final assignment. 

Paraprofessional Kimberly Mallinson assists students with a cardmaking activity Feb. 10 at Raymore-Peculiar High School. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon) 

No Kansas City-area districts have taken that option, Adamson said, but there are still individual paras in the metro area using the program. 

Many paras are eligible for financial aid such as federal Pell grants, the FASTrack grant, the TEACH grant and the College of Education scholarships, according to the Pathways for Paras website. 

Adamson said Missouri State is rolling out a grant which will cover any remaining tuition and fees for someone who is eligible for a Pell grant. 

For Mallinson, various sources of funding — including scholarships she applied for through Missouri State — helped make her degree affordable. She predicts that she’ll be able to pay off all of her loans one year after becoming a teacher, solely with the salary increase the position will provide. 

Assisting paras in unique situations  

Elizarraraz said paraprofessionals who struggle to become teachers demonstrate that the challenge isn’t just attracting people to the teaching profession, but removing hurdles. 

“There are so many people that already exist within the system and within institutions that are interested in teaching,” she said. “…It is true that a lot of people don’t want to be teachers, but I think there’s a misconception that nobody wants to be teachers, and that is just not the case.”

Pecina and Elizarraraz said the Latinx Education Collaborative is still learning about options as it works to steer prospective teachers toward programs that meet their individual needs. 

They also troubleshoot specific issues that aren’t addressed by existing systems. 

Barriers could include financial challenges, immigration status, needing to improve English language skills, housing issues or even needing to get a GED before becoming a para. 

The collaborative is also reaching out to school districts in an effort to learn about their programs and find ways to work together. 

Kansas City Public Schools and Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools are districts they’ve discovered so far that have strong pathways programs for paras, Elizarraraz said. 

Milford, the aspiring teacher in the Shawnee Mission School District, has looked into the Kansas City, Kansas, Para-to-Teacher program. It pays for paras with a bachelor’s degree and at least one year of para experience to earn a master’s degree in special education through Fort Hays State University while working. 

But like other programs Milford has explored, including some she got connected with during a para college fair sponsored by the Shawnee Mission School District, it isn’t ideal. 

Milford said it would complicate her life to work in KCK instead of at her daughter’s school in Shawnee Mission. Becoming a special education teacher also isn’t her first choice. 

With a bachelor’s degree in theater design and experience with costume design and alterations, Milford thinks she would make a good family and consumer sciences teacher. She’s also thought about becoming a theater and speech teacher. 

But she learned that middle and high school teachers are expected to have a bachelor’s degree in the subject area they teach, and her degree didn’t count. 

It’s easier to become certified in elementary education or special education, but those aren’t her main areas of interest. 

Milford is also concerned about the financial cost of returning to school. She’d like to avoid more student loans, and it would be difficult to devote a semester to unpaid student teaching. 

“I haven’t really gotten to the bottom of it yet,” Milford said of her efforts to find the right path.

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.