MOUNT VERNON, Iowa (AP) — Becky Dudrey is earning her teaching degree while working as a paraeducator at Washington Elementary School in Mount Vernon as a part of the state’s new Teacher and Registered Apprenticeship Pilot Program.
The preschool paraeducator is one of more than 1,000 paraeducators across the state selected for the apprenticeship. The one-time grant award is provided through the state’s allocation of the federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. The Iowa Department of Education and Iowa Workforce Development Agency allocated $9 million for the apprenticeship program.
The apprenticeship model is a new opportunity to train future educators as many Iowa schools struggle to employ adequate staffing. The program takes away financial barriers. Funding supports tuition and fees up to $17,000 a year for up to two years at a public or private four-year college or university.
“There’s not enough teachers right now, and I love working with kids. I feel like a helper — helping them learn and learn life skills,” Dudrey told the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
Dudrey said working toward her teaching degree is an opportunity she wouldn’t otherwise have. However, even with the grant covering most of her expenses, it’s not easy. She’s working full-time and taking online college classes at William Penn University. She also has a husband and two children at home.
“It can be a lot of work,” Dudrey said, adding that she has the support of her building administrators and teachers around her — who she can also learn from.
The Marion Independent School District was selected for the two-year grant in partnership with 12 other Eastern Iowa school districts: Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Mount Vernon, Anamosa, Center Point Urbana, Alburnett, Iowa Valley, English Valleys, Tipton, Benton, Monticello and Mid-Prairie.
“Having more teachers in the pipeline is exciting,” Marion Independent Superintendent Janelle Brouwer said. “But even if candidates don’t continue all the way through to a teaching degree or pursue teaching, it’s still added value to the work they’re doing right now.”
The grant received by Marion Independent provided 61 spots for paraeducators — not all of which are filled. Some paraeducators will begin in the next semester, Brouwer said. Districts are partnering with Iowa State University, the University of Dubuque, the University of Iowa and William Penn University for the grant.
“The reality is it’s still a lot of work — working a full-time job and pursuing college-level coursework,” Brouwer said.
Sara Farnham, a paraeducator in a second-grade classroom at Longfellow Elementary School in the Marion Independent School District said the apprenticeship was “too good an opportunity to pass up.” It’s a chance to continue her education and work toward a career while already working in the profession, she said.
Farnham became a para four years ago at the suggestion of a friend. “I love hopefully making a positive impact on kids,” she said. She graduated from the Marion Independent School District in 2015. She enjoys being back in the schools she grew up in. She hopes to stay in the district after she earns her teaching degree.
Mount Vernon Superintendent Greg Battenhorst said being able to add “quality teachers” to Iowa is huge as the challenge becomes greater across the nation to recruit and retain educators.
“We need to do everything we can to help the people we already know who work in schools and are good at working with kids who show an interest in teaching become teachers,” Battenhorst said.
Battenhorst said that while he applauds the Department of Education for putting together this program, it is only two years of funding.
“I’m confident they will look for ways to try to sustain this program and develop something of similar nature,” Battenhorst said.
Anamosa Community School District Superintendent Darren Hanna said the apprenticeship program will be “vital” for the district.
“We’re seeing the number of people who apply for teaching jobs significantly decrease over the last few years,” Hanna said. “The number of people leaving the profession has increased to a number we’re not comfortable with either.”
While there are some people who dreamed of a career as an educator since they themselves were young, others stumbled across it while working in a school in a different capacity, Hanna said.
“There’s a percentage of people who may not have known it was something they had a passion and talent for, and they stumbled across it,” Hanna said. “This program allows them to work in a school while taking that next step toward their teaching certification.”