KOKOMO, Ind. — As a paraprofessional at Alexandria-Monroe Elementary School, Meredith Nichols sees the current teacher shortage firsthand.
“Schools are having difficulty finding teachers or paraprofessionals, and keeping them once they’ve been hired,” she said. “It’s been very difficult trying to keep up with the need.”
Her school corporation is one of five in north central Indiana partnering with Indiana University Kokomo to mitigate the shortage, by offering a program for teaching assistants like Nichols to complete a bachelor’s degree and become certified teachers.
Approximately 95 percent of Indiana school superintendents who responded to a survey by Equitable Education Solutions said they contended with a shortage of qualified candidates when filling teacher openings during the 2022 to 2023 school year.
Sarrah Grubb, assistant professor of education, said the campus received an Attract, Prepare, Retain (APR) grant from the Indiana Department of education to fund the Paraprofessional Pathway Program. It currently includes nearly 20 paraprofessionals from Alexandria Community Schools, Community Schools of Frankfort, Elwood Community Schools, Kokomo School Corporation, and Logansport Community School Corporation.
“Not only are we addressing the teacher shortage, but we’re doing it in a very localized way,” she said. “People who are paraprofessionals usually live in the district they work in, so they are already part of the community. We’re increasing the college attainment level of our communities, and filling positions in schools without taking them from other schools, with people who already are known to them.”
Tara Kingsley, assistant dean, said because the program uses their experience in the schools as a springboard.
“Some of them have been paraprofessionals for year,” she said. “They’ve worked in schools; they’ve seen the ins and outs of teaching. We can build off that, rather than starting from scratch.”
Grubb noted that several of the paraprofessionals are currently teaching to fill openings their principals could not otherwise fill. The program works around the school day schedule, with classes in person and online, to allow them to continue working while earning a degree.
“We want to make it as approachable for the students as possible,” she said.
The program allowed Nichols to return to college. She graduated from high school in 2020 and started at another university but decided it wasn’t a good fit and didn’t continue. That’s when she started working as a paraprofessional.
When her school began participating in the paraprofessional program, she jumped at the chance to continue her education, with the grant covering 75 percent of her tuition.
“There are five of us in our school doing this program together,” she said. “It’s been great having the accountability, and being able to talk with each other, discuss projects, and be able to support each other when times get hard.”
Nichols enjoys being able to apply what she’s learned from her classes in her own classroom, adding that the class she’s currently taking, Teaching in a Pluralistic Society, has helped her think about using books and materials that are inclusive. She’s considered that as she’s started building her classroom library.
She especially likes that she doesn’t just take traditional 16-week classes, but some are eight, six, or even four weeks, allowing them to progress quickly.
“You get a great sense of accomplishment quickly,” she said.
Grubb added that while the pace may be quicker, the classes are still rigorous, to prepare the paraprofessionals to become excellent teachers. They are often able to incorporate what is happening in their current classrooms into what they are learning, she said.
“We try to think of the relevance of the content we teach,” she said. “It’s the practice and theory coming together, pulling in current events and struggles they see in the schools. We’re not just reading to read. The purpose is to put the theory behind the teaching practices we’d like them to adopt.”