The beginning of the school year is always hectic. That’s according to Suzy Changnon. She’s been a paraprofessional in the DeKalb School District for around 15 years.
If you’re not sure who paraprofessionals are, you might know them better as instructional assistants or aids.
“There's a lot of scrambling," as Changnon characterized the job. "Students have needs that need to be met. And sometimes a lot of us are doing double duty trying to cover one schedule and then breaking away mid-class to go help another student.”
Paraprofessionals also help support teachers in the classroom. And they provide one-on-one support to students who need extra help and have individual education plans or IEPs. Student needs take many shapes; they could be social, emotional or physical.
Changnon often helps in science classes at the high school, but she says she has to be flexible.
“You never know what's going to happen if your student's not there that day. You might be plugged in to do something else,” she said.
Schools often hire these positions at the beginning of the year when it can be challenging to know the needs for the new school year.
DeKalb is fully staffed with paraprofessionals. Changnon says they have more than 50 just at the high school. That’s not the case everywhere. And she says she’s not surprised by the shortage statewide.
The number of unfilled paraprofessional positions at schools across the state hovers at near 1,000 -- that’s more than double what it was two years ago.
Chicago's District 299 currently has just over 400 unfilled paraprofessional positions.
Emily Fox calls the worsening situation an "unintended consequence." This summer, a new law ended the basic skills test requirement to help quell the teacher shortage. But it also inadvertently eliminated one of the pathways for paraprofessionals to get licensed.
Fox is the director of the educator effectiveness department at the Illinois State Board of Education. It oversees the preparation and licensing of educators.
“We estimate that the unintended consequence potentially is preventing about 1,000 paraprofessionals from joining the field between now and the end of the calendar year,” said Fox.
When the state eliminated the basic skills test, it actually stopped accepting an array of licensing tests used by both teachers and paraprofessionals.
Before you could take the ACT WorkKeys and ETS ParaPro Assessment to get certified. Now the only option for paraprofessionals is to have a college degree or at least proof of a certain number of credits.
Administrators at the Freeport School District can feel the effects of both of those shortages. They have 19 unfilled teaching positions and 17 for paraprofessionals.
Chris Shockey is the district’s director of human resources.
“Actually we had four para-educators in the pipeline to be hired,” he said. “And unfortunately, the process was not completed before the bill is signed and so, therefore, we are unable to hire them to fill vacant positions.”
So, lawmakers are working on another plan during this month’s veto session to repair that collateral damage. It would reinstate a competency test for paraprofessionals.
As of now, there hasn’t been much action on the bill. But, Emily Fox at the State Board of Education is very confident that it’ll pass. And if it does, she says they can start working immediately.
“As soon as we receive word that the bill has been signed -- if it is signed -- we will do a data run of all deficient paraprofessional applications, and our staff will go through and update them and issue them if they're able to,” said Fox.
Aside from that particular measure, they say they’re still working on how to better recruit paraprofessionals and teachers to fight the shortage.
Changnon re-iterates that it's not easy work.
“We're having to fulfill a lot of needs for students, both psychologically, emotionally, not just educationally...it's not as easy as you think because you're tasked with handling emotional or social needs of students that maybe years ago, you wouldn't necessarily have to handle,” said Changnon.
It’s also not particularly well paying. For example, paraprofessionals in the DeKalb School District rarely make over $25,000 per year.
And districts have expressed concern about being able to afford to maintain the staff they have now when Illinois’ $15 minimum wage hike kicks in.