Eastern Michigan University partners with Washtenaw Intermediate School District to combat critical teacher shortage in Michigan

Paraprofessional Justin Harper leans over to interact with a young student in a classroom.

YPSILANTI – Eastern Michigan University and Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD), are working collaboratively on a Paraprofessional-to-Teacher Certification Pilot Program to invest in existing public school employees who want to become teachers. 

Paraprofessionals work directly in classrooms to support small groups or one-on-one learning. The pilot program, made possible by a special waiver granted by the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), covers most of the costs of EMU’s teacher preparation courses, including books and fees, for dedicated para pros already working in area schools. The program has two tracks, and upon completion of the program, para pros will be certified special education teachers specifically for students with emotional impairments or learning disabilities.

“The pandemic teacher shortage crisis has significantly affected Michigan, which had maintained a well-balanced teacher supply system until recent years,” said Myung-Sook Koh, professor of special education and coordinator of the Paraeducators to Special Educators program at Eastern. “Teacher shortages have become a chronic phenomenon across the state’s school districts – regardless of suburban, urban, rural, or high versus low-paying school districts.”

Paraprofessional Justin Harper
Paraprofessional Justin Harper is a student in the pilot program and is eager to be able to complete his teaching degree. 

“The certification program addresses the critical shortage of special education teachers in the state,” said Dave Winters, professor and head of EMU’s Department of Special Education and Communication Sciences and Disorders, who has worked on this program since its inception along with a team of educators at the college. Winters teaches one of the courses and will pass the torch to his colleague, who will help oversee some of the day-to-day coordination. The program has successfully had three cohorts containing 25 students with plans on graduating its first class in fall 2023.

According to Winters, the program is successful for many reasons. The school districts and EMU have worked hard to remove barriers. Students travel to one location for an in-person class once per week and build strong connections in the classroom.

Winters said one of the best things about this program is it enhances what the students are already doing in the classroom because they’re familiar with their student population.

“It's been exciting to hear, not only from the students but also from administrators, the change in their work even though they haven’t completed the program,” said Winters. “The students have become substitutes, and they're starting to step into other roles temporarily while finishing the program.”

Justin Harper, a student in the pilot’s first cohort, said this program has given him a renewed focus on graduation. “Before this program, I was unsure when I would complete my degree because I mostly paid out of pocket,” said Harper. “There were many semesters I could not attend school because of finances, and the times I could attend, I often took a class or two at a time.”

“The program exceeds my expectations not only because of the great instructors but also the incredible paraeducators from cohort one that shares their wide variety of experiences that help broaden my horizons,” said Harper. “The teachers are amazing and want us to be successful, which I appreciate. They give us practical work to help us once we become teachers.”

“Collectively, public schools are the second largest employer in our county, and 10% of school staff are paraprofessionals already working in our classrooms,” noted WISD Superintendent Naomi Norman,  citing regional employer data from both SPARK and MI School Data. “Our parapros are living and working in our communities. They are already invested in our students and in our schools, and we want to  make sure there is a pathway for them to advance professionally.” 

Eastern hopes to work with MDE and other ISDs to expand the program.

About Washtenaw Intermediate School District  
Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) is the educational service agency for Washtenaw  County, Michigan, serving nine public school districts and the public school academies in the greater Ann  Arbor region. WISD provides special education student programs and early childhood programs, plus an array of services to the community and local schools, including: Special education leadership and  coordination, special education student programming, early childhood services, technology support,  business and human resources assistance, cradle-to-career community partnerships, and teacher and staff  professional development. For more information, visit www.washtenawisd.org. 

About Eastern Michigan University
Founded in 1849, Eastern is the second oldest public university in Michigan. It currently serves more than 14,000 students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, specialist, doctoral and certificate degrees in the arts, sciences and professions. In all, more than 300 majors, minors and concentrations are delivered through the University's Colleges of Arts and Sciences; Business; Education; Engineering and Technology; Health and Human Services; and its graduate school. National publications regularly recognize EMU for its excellence, diversity, and commitment to applied education. Visit the University’s rankings and points of pride websites to learn more. For more information about Eastern Michigan University, visit the University's website. To stay up to date on University news, activities and announcements, visit EMU Today.

January 11, 2023

Written by:
Melissa Thrasher

Contact:
Melissa Thrasher
mthrashe@emich.edu
734-487-4401