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For the past 22 years, Debra Tew has worked with middle school students as a paraprofessional. Assigned to the sixth grade classes at Sacajawea Middle School, Tew starts her day touching base with the teachers of the 15 students she works with.

Throughout the day, she’ll attend English, social studies and science classes to offer help ranging from answering questions, encouraging them to stay on track, pulling students out to read to them, helping them on a computer or any other assistance they might need.

For two class periods, she’ll also host a study lab in the resource room, where she can help students with homework or offer more direct assistance.

The kind of support Tew and her fellow special education paraprofessionals provide is critical to meeting the needs of students who have learning differences or need additional support with an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP.

There are 17 special education paraprofessional positions open across the Bozeman School District, leading administrators to call it one of the critical needs in the district’s ongoing staffing challenges.

It takes flexibility, patience, a sense of humor and a sense of care for students to make a good paraprofessional, Tew said.

Earlier this year, interim Superintendent Casey Bertram said administrators had to move a few of the classes for students who need additional learning support to remote learning but have since reopened and the district is hoping to avoid doing so again in the future.

“In the special education work, there are some positions that are hard to fill traditionally,” Bertram said.

Chad Berg, the district’s director of special education and health, said in some cases schools are looking for substitutes to provide support for the district’s certified special education teachers, who are then shifted into other education roles.

The district has sometimes found success in people starting as substitutes, trying positions in different schools and then transitioning to a permanent paraprofessional job, Berg said.

In the past, the district has also taken the money from unfilled paraprofessional positions and advertised for a certified special education teacher. Whichever position the district fills first is the direction it goes, Berg said.

“We’re wanting to make sure we’re putting the right people in front of our students to meet the needs,” Berg said.

Nicole Waldo, a special education paraprofessional with Sacajawea’s eighth grade, was recently pulled to work in the life skills room — a class for students with higher-needs — for two periods a day due to staffing shortages.

“It’s always hard to find support staff to work in the schools because the pay wasn’t so great and with the cost of living here it would be hard to afford that,” Waldo said, adding it’s worse now than it’s been in her five years with the district.

Despite the challenges, Waldo said she loves going to work and interacting with the students.

“They’re definitely a fun bunch to work with,” Waldo said of the middle school students. “I like seeing them succeed.”

CJ Janssen is in their second year as a paraprofessional in Sacajawea’s seventh grade and while they initially thought to only do it for a year, Janssen said they “fell in love with it.”

One aspect of the job that is often overlooked, Janssen said, is helping students with the social aspects of school.

“I love to talk about feelings and how to grapple with how weird life is and talk about pop culture,” Janssen said, adding a lot of the job was about helping students feel safe, heard and celebrated.

Paraprofessionals also often act as last-minute substitute teachers, Janssen said. Janssen has been acting as a sub with more frequency this year, especially with staff absences related to COVID-19 and the substitute shortage.

Staffing challenges across the board

Paraprofessionals aren’t the only position the district has struggled to hire. It has seen significant shortages in substitutes, food service and custodians.

The district has around 200 substitutes on its list, but many of the subs having other jobs or commitments. Bertram said he would like to see an additional 50 people on the list.

It was important not to overlook the direct impact of COVID-19 on the staffing challenges, Bertram said.

The district has heard from some substitutes who are wary about COVID-19 in the schools and those who are wary of the schools’ COVID-19 protocols, like mask requirements.

“We have had staffing problems in the past and COVID has amplified it,” Bertram said. “… I’ve never seen it so widespread across job types.”

For transportation, the district has consolidated some routes, resulting in some longer bus rides for its students. While classroom positions have been filled, the district is looking for a few school psychologists and school counselors.

The district remains down seven custodians, primarily rover positions, which move from building to building helping as needed.

Staffing food service jobs is another challenge for the district, with a shortage of 11 positions. In September, the district stopped hot lunches at all of its elementary buildings and began providing sack lunches.

“The other part of the food service issue is food shortages, and getting what we order in a timely fashion,” Bertram said. “That’s sort of a supply chain issue that we’re continuing to see impact food service.”

Bertram said despite these staffing challenges, the teachers, support staff and administrators are working together on a daily basis to provide a quality education to students.

“I think on a student perspective they might see more of a variety of faces they see each day,” Bertram said. “We’re able to provide those (services) to the best of our ability.”

Wage increases

The recruitment and retention challenges to impact all of the district’s job types and substitute pool are a sign of the times in Bozeman and something the district can no longer be reactive to but needs to be proactive, Bertram said.

Part of the proactive approach saw the school board approve pay increases for food service and special education paraprofessionals at the end of September.

Starting wages for new hires increased by an average of $1.41/hour. Current food service and special education paraprofessionals also received a wage increase at various amounts, depending on the position and experience.

The paraprofessionals who spoke with the Chronicle identified pay as one reason recruitment and retention is so hard to maintain for paraprofessionals, especially considering how demanding the job can be.

“With the increase in pay, I think that will help them get more people into the schools,” Waldo said.

For Janssen, being a paraprofessional is a stepping-stone into future career prospects.

“I think education is something I’ll always be moving around in,” Janssen said. “It’s a nice place to be for the moment but I probably won’t be a paraprofessional for a long time.”

Like Tew and Waldo, Janssen said the joys and rewards of the job outweigh any challenges.

“There are days that are really hard but I have had my hardest laughs in this building with these people,” they said.

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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