Paras 'heroes' of the classroom

MPCSD paras committed to their students, teachers and school despite low pay

GTNS photo by Grace King

Para Ashley Reynolds assists Carter Morrison-Suenka with a craft at Lincoln Elementary School.
GTNS photo by Grace King Para Ashley Reynolds assists Carter Morrison-Suenka with a craft at Lincoln Elementary School.

After a lifetime of factory work, Janeene Porter is finding her stride after only a month of being a paraeducator at Lincoln Elementary School.

It was on a whim that she got a job working in a school cafeteria when she was living in another state. She loved that the schedule allowed her to spend time with her two kids, a toddler and a teenager. She was fond of her co-workers. And when she moved to Mt. Pleasant, she figured she would apply for another position at a school here too.

“I didn’t come here for the pay,” Porter said. “I needed a flexible schedule because my child comes first. It may not be the right job for me, but I’m the right person for it.”

Holding a job as a paraeducator is tough and finding employees to fill the positions sometimes even more difficult for the Mt. Pleasant Community School District. Lincoln Elementary School Principal Lori LaFrenz said she has worked with a para who stayed in the position for only four days while others have stuck around for years.

“Paras provide support throughout the day, so if students become overwhelmed an adult can co-regulate that behavior until the child is able to participate in activities and learn again,” LaFrenz said. “It’s a hard job and so essential.”

With starting pay at $10.20 an hour for about 10 months out of the year, the district is competing for employees with other jobs in the area where they are able to work 12 months out of the year for comparable pay.

“The summer hours they’re not working make it not enough money,” LaFrenz said. “We’re competing with jobs year around.”

Paras are given raises of 15 to 20 cents an hour yearly and receive an additional 50 cents an hour upon completion of para certification or with an advanced degree.

There are 85 paras in the district and three positions that currently need to be filled.

After 20 years of being a paraeducator, Tina Myers walked into the 2018-2019 school year at Lincoln Elementary School a special-education teacher after completing her para to teacher training through William Penn University.

She became a para because one of her daughter’s teachers told her she would be great at it.

The qualities that make a good paraeducator are also the qualities that make a good teacher, Myers said.

“Sometimes, you’re the saving grace for that kid,” Myers said. To see a child struggle with day-to-day life and see them be successful, it’s rewarding.”

When Myers was a para, she also worked as a bus driver to make ends meet.

Jacob Bethune is completing the same para to teacher program in his fifth year of being a paraeducator. He didn’t want to be a teacher. He was trying to “figure things out” after finishing his associate degree and began working as a para in the meantime.

“No other job I’ve had has the same sense of fulfillment,” Bethune said. “The forward outweighs the frustration. The pay is questionable.”

Bethune is working part time at Family Video as he goes to college and works as a para. Between classes, work and his social life, Bethune said he averages five hours of sleep a night and is living paycheck to paycheck.

“Every student I’ve worked with I have a positive working relationship. I get to know their interests and reference those to make learning more engaging,” Bethune said.

While paras come and go, Harlan Elementary School Principal Michael Gossen said they are gaining traction on paras staying on from year to year.

“They are a group of people who work very hard,” Gossen said. “We as a school expect a lot from them and they consistently meet or exceed our expectations. We are so grateful to have them because we can’t function without them.”

“I have such a great group of paras and teachers and wonderful staff to work with,” LaFrenz said. “I admire what they do so much. I feel bad for the work they do and the pay they make. They do it with a smile on their face. They’re my heroes.”