Signs saying “apply today” are commonplace as businesses across the country struggle to find employees. Iowa schools are no different, with some feeling the pinch of teacher and paraeducator staff shortages, particularly in content areas designated as shortage areas in the state.
To address this issue and to ensure high-quality instruction continues in the classroom, Iowa is taking charge to help train and supply the future education workforce through a new work-based learning initiative.
The Teacher and Paraeducator Registered Apprenticeship Pilot Program, commonly known as TPRA, is a joint effort between Iowa Workforce Development and the Iowa Department of Education. Nineteen Iowa school districts and school consortia were awarded a total of over $45.6 million to implement registered apprenticeship pathways that provide new opportunities for current high school students and adult paraeducators to earn credentials all while learning and working in the classroom.
“This initiative seeks to create more than 500 new paraeducators and 500 new teachers,” said Paula Nissen, administrative consultant at the Iowa Department of Education. “Building a talent pipeline directly through our schools provides an accessible way for individuals to work towards certification, college degrees and a new career.”
The TPRA initiative is designed to allow high school students and adults to become certified paraeducators and even earn an associate degree. In turn, current paraeducators can work towards a bachelor’s degree in education. School districts partner with community colleges and four-year institutions to provide instruction, and all participants can learn and get valuable hands-on experience while working as a paraeducator or teacher’s aide in the classroom.
“TPRA is a great opportunity,” said Stacy Mentzer, vice president of instruction at Iowa Central Community College. “It fills the gaps for training and education for future teachers and paraeducators. Often, these areas are not covered under other scholarships or funding. This provides more incentive for individuals to pursue teaching and paraeducator careers.”
The TPRA initiative requires that current paraeducators become certified through an approved program in order to participate in the Teacher Registered Apprenticeship pathway. The Iowa Department of Education’s Paraeducator Certification Grant opportunities, offered earlier this year, helped facilitate this step by providing grant funding solely for training and certification. Nearly $878,000 was distributed to several community colleges, four-year institutions and Area Education Agencies that applied for the grant. Funds will assist 816 students by covering costs for the minimum 90 scheduled instruction hours that are required for each individual seeking paraeducator certification. A typical student will save costs on tuition, books and fees between $350 to $1,200, depending on where they attend classes.
“The Paraeducator Certification Grant opportunities were a great link to TPRA,” Nissen said. “It helped develop individuals who already have an interest in working in our schools and provided them with support to become certified and more effective in the classroom.”
Earning paraeducator certification builds confidence, provides up-to-date best practices and can lead to higher wages and other benefits.
“When we get students into the paraeducator certification program, they realize they can do it,” Mentzer said. “It opens their eyes to their possibilities as a paraeducator and beyond. Previously, they may have felt higher education wasn’t an option for them.”
Storm Lake Community School District has been working with Iowa Central Community College, Buena Vista University and other postsecondary institutions to implement their TPRA program. In a consortium with eight other school districts – Newell-Fonda, Sioux Central, Southeast Valley, Denison, Woodbine, Albert City-Truesdale and Spencer – they are using their nearly $6.2 million grant award to provide a quality experience for individuals participating in the program.
“TPRA allows us to think outside the box on how to do job training, credentialing and education prep,” said Stacey Cole, Storm Lake superintendent. “We have created a stackable program to meet the education requirements, so participants can decrease the number of hours they need to do outside of the school day.”
With a mix of urban and rural school districts partnering in Storm Lake’s TPRA consortium, participants are also able to gain hands-on experience with instructional coaches and other professionals in a variety of locations.
“Having both small and large schools in our consortium provides a diverse experience,” Cole said. “Participants can experience the awesome parts in both types of schools and can see what may be the best setting for them.”
Cole hopes TPRA not only addresses the staff shortages seen in Storm Lake and other districts but also inspires higher education dreams for students and her community.
“Many of our students, alumni and individuals in the community are first-generation and haven’t considered college as an option,” she said. “It’s extremely important to find ways to get teachers and staff that match or understand the experience and family-driven cultures of our students,”
In Storm Lake, TPRA is bringing new individuals into the paraeducator and teaching profession, and Cole is excited to see how her community will grow through the results of this program.
“This opportunity can open doors in non-traditional ways,” she said. “I hope funding like TPRA is continued in the future, so we can support and promote careers as teachers and paraeducators to people who may not have other chances at higher education.”