Barb Schwamman knows a good deal when she sees it. When the state’s Teacher and Paraeducator Registered Apprenticeship Grant Program was announced last year, she jumped at the opportunity.
Schwamman, the superintendent of both the Osage and Riceville community school districts, saw the grant program – which offsets education costs for high school students aspiring to be paraeducators and paraeducators aspiring to be teachers – as a chance for the small districts to grow their own talent.
And it is solidly on track: Between the two districts, there are four students working to be paraeducators and six paraeducators working to be teachers. The combined enrollment of the districts is 1,350.
“I’m very pleased with the participation in the first year as we are truly growing our own,” Schwamman said.
The grant program provides opportunities for current high school students to earn a paraeducator certificate and associate's degree, and paraeducators to earn their bachelor's degree all while learning and working in the classroom.
The program provides funds to districts to support up to $40,500 over a three-year period for each high school student who completes the Paraeducator Certificate or associate's degree. Up to $47,000 is provided over a two-year period for each paraeducator who completes the bachelor’s degree. Participating districts are required to partner with local community colleges or four-year colleges or universities.
The program also helps grow a strong pipeline of teachers who are vested in their communities.
“These days, it takes much longer to fill the positions,” Schwamman said. “This program will definitely help address that.”
“The Teacher and Paraeducator Registered Apprenticeship Grant Program is a great way for districts to grow their own talent,” said Maryam Rod Szabo, a consultant at the Iowa Department of Education. “Furthermore, it is an opportunity for high school students to sample a career in education, and it’s an affordable way for paraeducators to advance their careers.”
Take, for instance, Osage paraeducator Rachel Fangmeier. She’s about two years away from becoming a teacher, and she hopes to teach at Osage or Riceville.
“I was initially nervous about it but it is actually working out really well,” she said. “It’s not just the financial part of it – which is great – but it allows me to be very flexible with my work. I’m gaining a lot of experience just working in the classrooms and seeing what works and what doesn’t.”
Rachel, a 2020 Osage graduate, is taking online classes at Buena Vista University.
“My dream is to come back here and teach,” she said. “I like the smaller school environment. Ideally I would stay in Osage. I love the environment here.”
Riceville High School Senior Trenten Swensen is working to be a paraeducator.
“It's a good experience, especially since my end goal is to become a teacher,” he said. “Getting a connection with the students is a good start. Knowing the problems my students face gives me motivation.
“As a para, I will work with special education. Most general education teachers don’t get that experience, so I think it’s going to help me quite a bit.”
Trenten eventually wants to teach high school science or social science.
Like Rachel, Trenten hopes to eventually teach in the area.
“I like smaller districts,” he said. “I think it would be nice to stay in the area and teach. That's where my family is and I think the districts are run very well.”
Superintendent Schwamman urges other districts to check out the program.
“I think it is such a great program,” she said. “You are investing in your people. And the high school students – you are getting them excited about being educators.”