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Gabi, a student at Denver's Bruce Randolph School, works with a paraprofessional during an adapted physical education class in 2015.

Gabi, a student at Denver’s Bruce Randolph School, works with a paraprofessional during an adapted physical education class in 2015.

What Denver is doing to recruit more special education paraprofessionals — and keep them

In an effort to improve education for students with disabilities, the Denver school district is trying new ways to ensure it’s fully staffed on the first day with paraprofessionals — the aides who are often referred to as the backbone of special education.

Historically, the district has started the year with dozens of unfilled special education paraprofessional positions at schools across the city, officials said. Those vacancies have an outsized impact on students such as Tawny Becker’s 8-year-old daughter, who has Down syndrome and needs extra help in reading, math, and other subjects.

“If she doesn’t have support for the first month, two months, three months, she’s going to be set back in her academic knowledge greatly,” Becker said.

To combat the vacancy problem, Denver Public Schools is raising the starting pay for special education paraprofessionals to more than $15 an hour. It is also providing five days of summer training for aides who work with students with autism or emotional disabilities, which officials hope will better prepare the aides for those jobs and reduce a high turnover rate.

In addition, the district is holding hiring fairs for a central pool of paraprofessionals who can be assigned to schools if principals are unable to fill vacancies on their own. The next hiring fair is scheduled for Aug. 8. As of this week, the district had about 70 special education paraprofessional jobs still open, in addition to seven special education teacher positions.

“The primary concern we’re trying to address is to ensure we’re fully staffed on the first day of school so kids can receive the supports immediately,” said Robert Frantum-Allen, director of special education for Denver Public Schools.

The changes come as the district is rethinking how to best serve its more than 10,000 students with disabilities. In June, the school board acted on a recommendation from a task force of parents, teachers, and advocates by passing a resolution committing to “inclusive practices.” The concept means educating students with disabilities in traditional classrooms alongside their peers, rather than sequestering them in special classes.

Details about how the district will put inclusive practices in place are expected in a forthcoming strategic plan. But it will likely require support from paraprofessionals, who help students with academics, behavior, and daily living tasks such as using the bathroom.

Education paraprofessionals in Colorado are required to have an associate degree, two years of college credit, or to have passed a special exam. The pay is low and the turnover is high. Last year, 35% of Denver’s nearly 2,500 paraprofessionals left their jobs, according to state data.

Not all Denver paraprofessionals work with students with disabilities, but those who do are paid more. The district will raise the starting pay for special education paraprofessionals this fall from between $14.34 and $15.14 an hour to between $15.10 and $15.86 an hour.

The funding to do so comes from cuts to the district’s central office that Superintendent Susana Cordova made in part to pay for higher teacher salaries negotiated during a strike earlier this year. Separate special education funding that lawmakers added to the state budget this year will allow the district to hire one additional paraprofessional in each of its nine elementary school “affective needs centers,” which are classrooms that serve students with emotional needs.

Paraprofessionals who work in the affective needs centers, as well as those who work in centers that serve students with autism, will be offered the new summer training, Frantum-Allen said. While teachers have traditionally received before-school training, the paraprofessionals in the trenches have not, leaving some unprepared for working with students with behavior challenges.

Lacey Nelson, the district’s talent acquisition manager, said her staff is using the training as a recruitment tool for positions that have historically been harder to fill.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to make it attractive and set people up for success,” she said. “We can’t sustain finding new people every year to fill these openings. We have to get people better prepared and support these people in these roles, because it is hard.”

Becker, whose daughter is going into second grade, said she’s hopeful the district’s new approach will work. She knows how difficult it can be to recruit paraprofessionals; although the parents at her daughter’s school raise money each year to hire extra help for each classroom, she said many of the jobs go unfilled for months after school starts.

This coming year, her daughter’s special education team decided the 8-year-old would benefit from a one-on-one paraprofessional to provide her more intensive help in the classroom.

But as of last week, no one had been hired.

The next job fair will take place Aug. 8 from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at Northfield High School.