Eliminating barriers for paraprofessionals heralded as another way to address teacher shortage

Proposed legislation that advocates say would chip away at the state’s chronic educator shortage and diversify the teaching ranks drew widespread support Monday during its first hearing.

SB352 aims to eliminate barriers that prevent paraprofessionals — support staff who often work with students as classroom aides or tutors — from becoming licensed educators. The bill, which is sponsored by the Senate Education Committee, would allow paraprofessionals to continue working while student teaching.

It would also require the Department of Education to accept student teaching completed in another country if “the program or experience substantially fulfills the standards of a program of student teaching” in Nevada.

Sen. Mo Denis (D-Las Vegas), who chairs the Senate Education Committee, framed the legislation as a way to ensure people interested in entering the teaching profession can do so without numerous obstacles in their way. 

“What keeps me awake sometimes is knowing that as more of the state’s Baby Boomers retire, our need for new teachers will only grow, making our teacher corps even younger and less experienced,” he said.

Michelee Cruz-Crawford, principal of C.C. Ronnow Elementary School in Las Vegas, was a driving force in bringing this bill to life. The administrator said she noticed huge desire among paraprofessionals at her school to become full-fledged teachers, but they often hit a sticking point when they encountered the student teaching portion of their undergraduate coursework: Many couldn’t afford to quit their paraprofessional jobs in order to student teach for the required 16 weeks.

Some paraprofessionals, who generally have nine- or 10-month contracts, make only $13,000 to $20,000 a year, Cruz-Crawford said.

“They obviously love the work they do because they do it for peanuts,” she said during an interview with The Nevada Independent. “They have the experience.”

Cruz-Crawford said she began reaching out to local colleges and universities to see if they would be open to allowing paraprofessionals to continue working in their existing schools while student teaching, as long as their experience matched the licensure they were trying to obtain. After receiving positive responses, the idea eventually morphed into SB352.

At C.C. Ronnow Elementary School, Cruz-Crawford said she typically has one or two paraprofessionals a year working on undergraduate coursework to become licensed teachers and nearing the student teaching requirement. She has seen firsthand their financial dilemmas once reaching that point.

Removing that barrier, she said, would help paraprofessionals secure their teaching licenses while also easing the state’s teacher shortage and helping diversify staff. 

Despite a diverse student body in the Clark County School District, the overwhelming majority of licensed educators (65 percent) are white; by comparison, only 36 percent of support staff members are white. Twenty-three percent are Black, and 29 percent are Hispanic.

Cruz-Crawford described paraprofessionals as “amazing hard workers” whom she would hire in a heartbeat. Many have accumulated years of experience inside the classroom and live in the neighborhoods where they work, making them more likely than out-of-state candidates to stay.

Fatuma Abdullahi, a specialized program teacher assistant at C.C. Ronnow Elementary School, is one of those people. She has worked as an SPTA since January 2015, but her dream is to become a fully licensed special education teacher.

“I've been taking only two classes at a time, because I have to work to pay for my rent, my car and utilities bills,” she said while testifying in support of SB352. “Now I'm at the point where I have to leave work so that I could finish my last year in school. This is the bill that is going to make hundreds of dreams come true — dreams that are being delayed over and over again.”

The Nevada State Education Association, Clark County Education Association, Vegas Chamber, Clark County School District, Washoe County School District and UNLV are among the organizations and institutions that testified in support of the bill. No one testified in opposition or neutral.

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.