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Portland Public Schools experiencing special education paraeducator shortage

District officials hope more people apply for paraeducator positions that are crucial to providing support to teachers and helping students learn.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Public School District is making a plea to people in the community, asking them to consider working as a paraeducator in special education classrooms.

District officials said they’re experiencing more of a shortage of paraeducators this year than in previous years. People in the positions are crucial to giving teachers a helping hand in the classroom and also helping students with special needs learn.

Kijana Winchester, known as Ms. Kiki, has been a paraeducator for about 23 years for Portland Public. She works at Jefferson High School.

“My grandfather went to school here. My father went to school here. I went to school here. I graduated in ‘92 and I came back to work in ’98,” said Winchester.

For Winchester, what she does is more than a job.

“I love the students. I love the impact,” she said. “It's just gratifying.”

Tricia Curley, the assistant director for special education in middle and high schools, said paraeducators like Winchester make a huge difference.

“There are a lot of para educators in our district who are changing the lives of students every day, and we need more,” said Curley.

This year, she and other administrators who oversee the special education program say the district is in need of more paraeducators.

“This year we were down 65 openings in August. We're still, at this moment, down 45 openings,” Michelle Murer said. Murer is the special education director for Portland Public and said being down so many positions isn’t typical.

“At the beginning of the school year, we're always down probably 15 to 20 paraeducators. But within a month, we're usually back up to fully staffed within a few,” said Murer.

Why is there a big shortage of paraeducators this year?

When asked, administrators were unsure. They said it may be partly due to the pandemic. Murer said when schools closed early in the pandemic, some paraeducators left for other jobs and never came back.

KGW reached out to educators who said a paraeducator’s job is difficult. They may have to deal with emotional outbursts and injuries when students are unable to regular their emotions. Also, among other things, they said the pay is low for the work. 

On the district website, pay for a number of paraeducator positions is listed as $19.20 to $25.49 per hour.

Whatever the reason for the shortage, educators as a whole said the situation is hurting students, in a time students’ needs are greater after a hard couple years in the pandemic.

“I just think that if people come, they'll see what a difference it makes and how fulfilling that is,” said Curley.

For Winchester, working more than two decades as a paraeducator has been fulfilling and it’s why she continues to do what she does in the classroom.

“Just making a difference in students’ lives like, that's what makes me want to do it,” Winchester said.

Portland Public Schools has a $3,000 retention bonus for new paraeducators who are hired.

However, over the last couple of years, other school districts have also experienced difficulty in hiring paraeducators.

To find out more on how to apply to a paraeducator position at PPS click here.

In Oregon, there’s a state work group dedicated to finding ways to fill these types of staffing shortages.

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