The level of excitement and fun was unmistakable on a recent Tuesday in Jeremy Reynoso’s kindergarten class at Meadowlark Elementary School in Salt Lake City.
As the school year came to a close and with most of their lessons behind them, Reynoso let the students have time to play with building blocks, dig in a sandbox or practice their math skills on tablets. His students’ laughter, shrieks and shrills flowed into the hallway.
Reynoso, 30, has been teaching kindergarten at Meadowlark for four years. He’s used to having about 20 students each year, but this year he had only 12. Still, the group kept him on his toes.
With students pulling him in different directions, Reynoso said having paraprofessional Carmen Gomez working alongside him is a big help in managing his classroom.
“I’ve always had a para and that’s thanks to the organization of our school here,” Reynoso said. “Our principal has always had that as a big priority to support the kindergarten staff because we are really the foundation beginning of our school experience for many of our students.”
Paraprofessionals — or paraeducators — are commonly known as teacher assistants and teacher aides. In the classroom, they help supervise and instruct students. Some are there to translate the lessons for students who are English language learners or assist students with disabilities. The extra adult also means more opportunities for students to get one-on-one attention.
This was Gomez’s first year working as a paraprofessional in the Salt Lake City School District. In addition to helping with class work, the 62-year-old said the students will also ask her to help them fix their hair or tie their shoes.
“I took the job because I feel like I am doing something good,” Gomez said. “Something that is going to help the children grow up and hopefully be a good citizen.”
A Growing Compensation Gap
Aides typically have fewer qualifications than teachers. At the Salt Lake City School District, aides are required to have completed at least two years of college, have an associate’s degree or have passed a standardized teacher certification exam that measures their academic skills and content knowledge of specific subjects needed for teaching.
Their compensation, however, is meager compared to teachers, whose starting salaries are as much as $51,000 in Utah.
In May 2018, the annual mean wage for full-time teacher aides in Utah was $26,230, less than the national average of $28,750, according to a report by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. But in Utah, teacher aide positions aren’t always full time or come with benefits like health insurance.
Several Utah school districts are prioritizing teacher pay in an effort to remedy the ongoing teacher shortage. In 2016, Utah had a shortage of 1,672 teachers, according to a study by Salt Lake City-based think tank Envision Utah, as school districts struggle with recruitment and retention. As the movement continues, it seems like teacher aides getting left behind.
In Utah, teacher aides typically start around $11 an hour, but in other states they start at between $12 to $15 an hour, said Marilyn Likins, the director of the National Resource Center for Paraeducators at Utah State University, which provides resources and support for teacher aides across the country.
“You really could do better going to Costco or working at other businesses that pays at that same level and does build in benefits,” Likins said.
Starting in 2010, the federal Affordable Care Act requires large employers of 50 or more employees to offer full-time workers health insurance. After the law was implemented, Likins said she saw Utah school districts cutting back hours for teacher aides to save money on their health care costs.
“That became a real challenge for paraeducators to be paraeducators,” Likins said.
That’s the case for Debbie Medina, 60, who earned $7 per hour as a starting teacher aide at the Salt Lake City School District in 1998. Her pay has since gone up to $13 an hour. But Medina hasn’t seen a raise in at least five years, and now makes around $14,000 annually, she said.
“To be honest, my morale was pretty low this year because I saw everyone around me getting raises — even though it was only 50 cents — but I was already tapped out. I wasn’t able to get a raise,” Medina said.
Teacher Aides Becoming Harder To Recruit, Retain
The raises that aides get are typically less than a dollar, despite the fact that the demand for them has grown. Aside from the teacher shortage, the number of students who are English language or have disabilities in Utah increased by more than 17,000 in the past three years.
The National Education Association, a national union that represents public school teachers and other support staff and educators, says all three are factors that drive up employment of teacher aides.
There were 1.3 million teacher assistant jobs in the U.S. in 2016, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bureau expects the number of teacher assistant jobs in the U.S. will grow by 8% by 2026, but the report does not breakdown what states will have those new jobs.
But like teachers, aides are also becoming harder to recruit and retain. The Salt Lake City School District has about 400 paraprofessionals, but Superintendent Lexi Cunningham said her district began feeling the pinch last year.
“It was elementary, middle school, high school. It was east side, west side,” Cunninghman said. “It was like if you had a wish list, parapros was at the top of the list.”
The Salt Lake district is not alone. Granite and Logan City school districts have also run into similar issues.
Cache Valley’s low unemployment means there’s a small pool of workers looking for jobs, said Frank Schofield, the Logan City School District superintendent. He also thinks the pay and the lack of flexibility of school day work hours isn’t attractive for everyone.
“We specifically see this as we are trying to hire individuals who can come in and work with our students with physical disabilities,” Schofield said. “For example, we need help with toileting, feeding and those positions have been getting harder to fill.”
Teacher aides at the Logan City School District work between 3 to 5.75 hours a day with a starting wage of $11.09 an hour during the 2018-19 school year. Schofield estimates that aides who have worked in the district for about five years can make up to $12.47 an hour or about $8,900 per year — if they work 20 hours per week.
Making The Salt Lake City School District A ‘Parapro’ Home
Last month, the Salt Lake City Board of Education voted to raise wages for instructional paraprofessionals that work directly with teachers to $15 an hour starting July 1. Special education paraprofessionals will start at $15.50.
The district will cover the pay raise for instructional paraprofessionals by using money from sources such as schools’ special education funds, as well as Teacher and Student Success Accounts, a funding source created during the 2018 Utah legislative session, the district said.
According to the district, almost all its paraprofessionals will get a raise. Cunningham hopes it will make a difference.
“We really wanted to entice people to look at this job as something that could pay a good wage and make Salt Lake City their teaching and their parapro home,” she said.
In Logan, Schofield said his district isn’t able to make the same pay raise, so they are taking a different and more individual approach. The Logan district has been successful in convincing some parent volunteers to take the next step and enter a teacher aide job so they can get paid for about the same kind of work they were already doing.
“It’s all when the timing is right for the individual and their family, but we have had a number of situations where that’s the process has occurred,” Schofield said.
Meadowlark paraprofessional Debbie Medina said the raise for aides at the Salt Lake district comes as she’s been questioning whether staying on the job is worth it.
The job is a second source of income for her household, where her husband is the breadwinner. Medina thinks she could probably get a similar amount of income as her current salary if she retired, but the raise means she can hold off retirement for a while longer.
“I would love to stay,” Medina said. “That’s my goal because (this job) keeps me active and going and these children are the bright spot of my life.”