This is the third story in a series on the state of special education. You can read the first story here and the second story here.
For many students with disabilities, a paraeducator is the first person they see once the bus arrives at school every day.
At Cedar Park Middle School in Beaverton, David Waldrip likes to crack a joke with students he meets at the bus stop, a check-in to see how they’re feeling that morning.
Katrina Kerley waits outside of Beaverton High School to greet the senior she works one-on-one with, and then walks with them to the student center to hang out with friends.
And Kyrsti Sackman sits in the cafeteria at McKinley Elementary, ready to meet students for breakfast after they get off the bus.
From there, the day goes in three different directions for the paraeducators at three different schools. They all have different tasks, based on the needs of different groups of students of various ages experiencing different disabilities.
Paraeducators, or paraprofessionals — “paras” for short — are staff members who provide support to staff and students, mostly in special education. They can help an individual student, like Kerley at Beaverton High. Or, they can be in specific special education classrooms, like Waldrip and Sackman. But even then, the jobs look different.
Sackman works with four other paras on teaching students specific subjects in a small, focus classroom. Waldrip is the only paraeducator in his room, spending his days supporting the nine students in the school’s Emotional Growth Center. The EGC is his home base, but most days are spent roaming around the school to meet students in their core and elective classes, helping students who have communication or behavior issues stay on task — or stepping in if a student is having a behavioral issue.
“I put my blood, sweat and tears into this job every single day,” Waldrip says, “and some days are better than others.”
Paraeducators provide essential services to help students with disabilities access their education. The job demands hard work, compassion and teaching skills, but it often comes with less training and support than other jobs in schools. That’s despite their direct work in sometimes perilous positions facing students with high behavioral needs. Paras aren’t paid a lot. For all of those reasons, paras often burn out and leave the profession, while other people interested in working with kids may avoid taking on such a difficult role in the first place.
Kerley has been working with the same student since she was a freshman, helping her through her classes, which include choir and social studies.
“I am pretty much her eyes and her hands,” Kerley said. She types notes for the student, opens up her lunch, and along with the student, helps field questions about special education from general education peers. By offering one on one support, Kerley said her student can learn and participate in general education settings with her peers.
“I’m getting to be an example of how inclusion can look,” Kerley said. As her student approaches graduation, the focus shifts to building skills for life after high school.
Other paras, like Waldrip and Sackman, have a larger group of students they serve throughout the day. And in working with younger students, there are different behaviors they help with day to day.
A classroom of students speaking “10 different languages”
“Transitions are murder,” Waldrip said. Those are the moments throughout the day where students change classes, or go from lunch to PE, or get ready to leave to go home.
“Transitions are always hard — they’re hard for our neurotypical kids,” Waldrip said. “Think of a student who likes math, loves math. And they just get started on the homework, or on their classwork, and all the sudden it’s over, and they gotta transition to language arts, which they hate!”
Waldrip has worked at Cedar Park for his whole paraeducator career, spending time in the school’s two specialized classrooms for students with disabilities. Like other paras, he got into the field as his own children were moving through the school system. He recalls that he “just fell in love” with the students he worked with in the Emotional Growth Center.
That was 12 years ago. Now he works out of the Emotional Growth Center at the middle school level. Sometimes he helps students in their math or science class. Other times, he gets a call on his radio to help a student in crisis who may be wandering the halls and not going to class.
“It’s like a treasure hunt — I’m searching and searching for a good thing for this student to do to build upon,” Waldrip said. He doesn’t always find treasure, and sometimes there are tough moments.
Maintaining routine is important in any classroom. In special education classrooms, that routine keeps staff and students on the same page, creating stability for neurodivergent students while also dealing with different variables changing throughout the day.
In the classroom Sackman supports at Beaverton’s McKinley Elementary, the adults all have the same goal — to educate students. But the way they get there might be different, and that requires constant communication, which can be difficult to maintain in a busy classroom.
“Our days look the same, but because of our students, and them being people, the mood can change minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day,” Sackman said. “So it’s definitely very stressful, and I’m definitely sweating.”
Sackman’s classroom serves primarily students with autism or sensory processing delays.
“We have 10 kids that speak, in effect, 10 different languages, because the way they understand, the way they communicate is in a different way,” Sackman said.
Paraeducators like Sackman, Waldrip, and Kerley say they enjoy the work because of the students they serve. But it takes a physical and emotional toll. Students may have a meltdown that leads to crying, yelling, or even hitting the adult closest to them, often a paraeducator.
“We truly are that front line with that student interaction, which also means we’re the ones being asked to put our bodies on the line, we’re the ones being asked to put the most … physical effort for the least amount of pay,” Kerley said.
Access and training — what’s missing
Paraeducators don’t stick around for the money. They feel drawn to helping students with some of the highest needs, students who can be successful when given the tools and resources needed to access school. But there are a few things paraeducators want to change about their jobs — from access to student information and training to better pay.
While paraeducators are often spending more time with individual students than anyone else in the school building, they’re often excluded from meetings about a student’s individualized education plan. Those are discussions involving parents and school and district staff focused on a student’s progress. Meetings on education plans may result in changes to a student’s learning goals.
David Waldrip would like to be involved so that he can give input or answer questions related to his students. He said there’s “no greater advocate” than him and the student’s special ed teacher.
Beaverton and Portland officials said paraeducators are “not required participants of the IEP process” so they are not invited to meetings.
Another ongoing challenge for paraeducators new and old is the level of training staff receive. With school districts rushing to fill these positions, paraeducators — some without experience working in schools — may be rushed into classrooms to help students with varying needs.
Sackman, who is also the president of Beaverton’s school employees union, said more training and onboarding, especially early in the school year, is something she’s been advocating for. Negotiations between the Beaverton School District and the union representing paraeducators and other school staff has led to a “significant” increase in professional development opportunities according to the district, and there are several annual virtual trainings required on topics including how to safely restrain students who are acting dangerously.
In addition, district officials said they recently purchased a “virtual training program for classified staff to assist with learning initial paraeducator skills in short lessons.”
Other paras seek resources outside of the school district to supplement their training.
“I’ve done so much work outside of my job to just educate myself about how to be a competent educator… and I don’t get paid for that,” said a paraeducator working at a Portland high school, who asked not to be named to avoid repercussions at work.
Kerley in Beaverton said building confidence for new staff members through training is important in order to retain employees.
“If you don’t feel like you’re ever going to be successful, then you’re going to try to do something else,” Kerley said.
Or, Kerley noted, some paraeducators might take the step to become a teacher.
Paraeducators stress that these tools — access and training — are key to feeling respected in the workplace, and in turn being successful in the job.
Feeling safe and adequately paid are big concerns, as well. And if paras aren’t getting what they need, they leave for other jobs.
Safety and pay concerns also common among paras
Shannon Berke and Kate Fricke both started working as paraeducators in 2021, with schools back in session after the pandemic. They ended up in the same Social Emotional Skills classroom at Portland’s Buckman Elementary School.
Berke had experience working with students with behavioral needs, and went to an in-person, six-hour training on how to block kids and restrain them if needed. And then she started.
“I was getting hit, kicked, punched, spit on,” Berke said. “Never in my life had anyone screamed at me that they wished I was dead, or that they were going to kill me, or that they hoped that I died.”
That was September 2021. In January, one student punched her in the face, which Berke said “dislodged” her nose. A few weeks later, a student threw a jacket at Berke and the zipper shattered the bone on the bridge of her nose.
“For weeks, my nose just crunched,” Berke said.
Two statewide unions supporting school staff, the Oregon School Employees Association and the Oregon Education Association, have published reports related to classroom safety. According to OSEA, 40% of respondents in a survey about special education employees said they had been injured while “supporting a student with high needs.”
Fricke, a former doula who lost her job during the pandemic, applied to be a paraeducator because she liked working with kids.
She attended a training on how to handle behavioral escalations — but not until she had already started.
“I was thrown to the wolves,” Fricke said.
At the same time, Fricke said the adults in the classroom — from the paraeducators to the classroom teachers, to therapeutic intervention coaches — worked together well.
“I felt like every day started on a high note,” Fricke said of the school days at Buckman.
But while Fricke said she “had an idea” of what a Social Emotional Skills classroom was like, it was still more than she expected.
“There was just this kind of chaos all the time because there just wasn’t the staff, and there was never consistency with what kids were going to be there,” Fricke said. “Whether or not we could do a full lesson plan — I mean we almost never did a full lesson plan.”
Fricke and other paraeducators say there should be pay variations for paraeducators depending on whether they work in a learning center or one to one positions, and if they work in special education classrooms.
“There has to also be a pay differential, and maybe some more thought into who they put into those higher intensity classrooms,” Fricke said.
Salaries for paraeducators vary based on experience, but across the Portland metro region’s three largest school districts — Portland, Beaverton, and Evergreen in southwest Washington — pay ranges are similar: starting at just under $20 an hour and topping out at a little over $25 an hour.
Portland Public Schools is offering a $3,000 retention bonus for new paraeducators, a continuation of an offer the district approved last year. Officials there say staff are paid at rates agreed to by the union representing paraeducators.
Legislation up for consideration this year may standardize and change some aspects of the field for paraeducators and other classified workers — a job category that includes everyone from school secretaries to bus drivers.
Support efforts on the table this legislative session
Among the hundreds of education bills on the table at the Oregon Legislature this session are efforts to increase support for classified workers.
Bills moving through the Senate and House range from House Bill 2708, to enact “Classified School Employees Week” statewide to Senate Bill 283, a support package to target staffing shortages, including those in special education. Proposed amendments for SB 283 include a 20% pay differential for special education staff, requiring minimum work hours for classified employees like paraeducators, and creating a statewide database of school district hiring needs by location and content area.
State Rep. Hoa Nguyen, D-Happy Valley, has direct experience in education as a student and community engagement specialist in the Clackamas Education Service District, and as a member of the David Douglas School Board. She supports SB 283.
“It’s creating a workforce around identifying, what are the root causes of what’s going on in our education system right now?” Nguyen said. “[...] I’m very committed to my students and the families I support and serve in school districts — I do have a passion for it, but at some point, if we don’t feel like we’re taken care of, or valued, or supported, there’s only so much, I think, we can tolerate.”
In addition to co-sponsoring other education bills, she’s a chief sponsor for House Bill 3383, which would ensure classified staff representation on statewide education panels, including the State Board of Education and the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission.
“This is just to provide more representation of all the folks who work in education,” Nguyen said.
Growing the special education workforce has been a goal at the state level since 2021, with districts citing difficulty in recruiting, retaining and supporting qualified candidates.
Staffing challenges in special education are not new, but school districts are facing stiff competition for employees, competing with companies and industries that may offer better compensation and benefits, and less stressful working conditions.
“The pay rate is inadequate and they can earn as much working for Amazon … or some other job,” Sen. Michael Dembrow said during the public hearing on SB 283 last month.
For some paraeducators, change may be too late.
“I just did a complete career change”
Between the low pay and the stress of the job, Fricke, a single mom with two kids, couldn’t pay her mortgage off of her monthly paraeducator salary. She left in April 2022.
Berke left the month before, after she said a 7-year-old student touched her inappropriately. She told school leadership, but did not feel like her concerns were adequately addressed.
Now she works at Music Millennium in marketing and promotions.
Fricke said she intended to stay through the end of the school year. But the time off in March for spring break gave her perspective.
“I was just job searching over spring break for my own sanity and mental health,” Fricke said. That’s how she found her current job, working for a women’s clinic.
Fricke and other paraeducators said administrators should be transparent about what jobs entail, and spend more time in classrooms to see what’s really going on — and what needs to change.
Berke said more money wouldn’t have kept her in the job. Pay played a role, but so did the “trauma circle” she said she found herself in: being injured or hurt by a child and also restraining children who were escalated. She said being successful as a para sometimes requires placing care for a child over your own safety.
“It’s surprising the first time you get punched in the face by a kid, and there’s the rare para … who really feels the compassion for the child and what they must be feeling and going through to have to express themselves in that way,” Berke said.
“It’s hard to separate all of that and to not have your mind going to the place of resentment or another emotion.”
Beaverton paraeducator David Waldrip didn’t think he had the patience to be a paraeducator. But at the end of his day, when he meets with the teacher in his classroom, they get ready to do it all again.
“One of the last things we say to each other as we’re leaving is one of two things: It’s either, ‘we’ll try again tomorrow,’ or ‘how about tomorrow, we do plan 456 L’ — which is our way of saying we’re just going to try something new tomorrow.”