Stephanie Siems can’t hide the desperation in her voice.
It’s the first week of August, and the Lamphere Schools District in Madison Heights still has a dozen openings for paraprofessionals to work with special education students. This represents 20% of the 60 special education assistants needed on the first day of school, August 30. In normal years, there might be one that opens so close to school reopening.
To try to attract employees, the district raised the starting wage from the $13.68 an hour it offered last year to $18.70 an hour, with health insurance, dental and vision care, paid sick leave, and retirement benefits for positions that only require a high school diploma. diploma.
“We’re praying it works,” said Siems, director of special education for Lamphere Schools in Bridge Michigan. “There are no candidates. It’s terrible.”
Across Michigan, school districts are struggling to fill the low-paying but high-value jobs known as paraprofessionals, who serve as classroom assistants to certified teachers. The shortage is particularly glaring in classrooms and special education centers.
The teacher aide shortage isn’t as well-known as the state’s teacher shortage, but the consequences could be just as devastating for students who rely on extra adults in the classroom to support them.
The shortage, which has worsened significantly this year, is likely a ripple effect of the pandemic, which has raised wages in normally entry-level jobs. Some fast food restaurants pay new hires $15 an hour and offer signing bonuses. It is also within the salary range that school districts until recently offered paraprofessionals.
Essentially, school districts are now competing with McDonald’s and Subway for workers who in the past would have filled teacher aide positions, said Tamaran Dillard, director of special education at Hazel Park Schools in the county. from Oakland. And flipping burgers is arguably an easier job.
“People in those positions, they love kids,” Dillard said. “But others don’t want to deal with the challenges a school might present…(and prefer) less stress.”
Teacher assistants are primarily used in elementary classrooms and in special education classrooms. In general classrooms, they help students who are struggling with lessons, a job that should play a more vital role in the coming school year as students return to class after a year between online learning and in-person learning.
Paraprofessionals also play a vital role in special education classrooms and centers, where the needs of students are often much greater. There were 193,000 students with disabilities in Michigan public schools in the 2020-21 school year, or 13% of all students.
Although there are paraprofessional certificate programs offered at some community colleges, no certification, training, or experience is required. The only requirement to be a teacher’s aide is a high school diploma. Schools provide training to those who are hired.
There is no statewide data on paraprofessional job openings in Michigan schools, but calls to districts across the state have confirmed a growing problem. A survey last week by the Oakland Intermediate School District, which provides services to Oakland County districts, found that one in 6 paraprofessional jobs needed this fall remain open — 145 total openings across 15 districts that responded to the survey.
The shortage is so severe that Oakland ISD issued an “urgent” press release last week pleading for people to apply.
“Parapros helps support students’ holistic education by helping them have equal access to the curriculum while helping students become contributing members of society,” said Karen Olex, Executive Director of Special Populations Schools. Oakland, in the press release.
“We desperately need them here in Oakland County and encourage those who think they are qualified to apply.”
In public schools in Comstock, a rural district in Kalamazoo County, the shortage is worse than ever. Comstock Superintendent Jeff Thoenes said the district raised pay from $15 an hour to over $17.
“We decided to make them the highest paid parapros in the county,” Thoenes said.
Still, Thoenes said he wasn’t sure he could fill his teaching assistant positions. He attributed the lack of interest to lingering fear over COVID safety in schools. Children under 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine, and many districts plan to make masks optional.
“When people think there’s danger, people think, do I want to risk it for $17 an hour?” said Thoenes.
Siems of Lamphere Schools encouraged those seeking employment to consider becoming paraprofessionals. Many people use the jobs as a stepping stone to a career in education or the medical field, Siems said, and many of those who hold the positions end up sticking around for years because they love the work.
Siems said she currently has 16 applications for paraprofessional positions, but “we call and they already have a job or they won’t get back to us,” Siems said. “Some are interested but they are already parapros in other neighborhoods that pay less. There just aren’t enough people. »
There is no statewide initiative to try to address the parapro shortage, but there is a virtual job fair Wednesday and Thursday for those interested in learning more about a variety of positions in Michigan schools.
Many school districts also post job openings on their websites. More information about the show is available at http://bit.ly/MIEDUCATION_JOBFAIRS.