Educational assistant: a disappearing district job

Dianna Pedersen's 27-year career as an educational assistant ended after her third layoff last spring. Photo by Dylan Thomas

Numbering more than 400 two decades ago, there are only 17 Minneapolis Public Schools employees with the job title of educational assistant left.

All of those remaining have at least 25 years of experience in the district, according to their union, and that includes everything from working alongside teachers in the classroom to supervising students out on the playground or in the lunchroom. But the positions open to them have dwindled, and in many cases roles formerly performed by educational assistants are now jobs for people with a different title, associate educator.

“It’s like we’re playing musical chairs and they take away a couple of jobs and now we have people try to all sit down in not enough chairs,” said Rose Shetka, an educational assistant at Barton Open School since 1991.

It’s a game educational assistants are playing, some argue, because the district appears to value two years of college education over decades of in-school experience. Unlike the educational assistants who started working in the district in the 1980s and ’90s, associate educators have always needed at least a two-year associate degree.

From the district’s perspective, principals are simply hiring for the positions that they think will serve their schools best.

“We see that sometimes old jobs transition out and new jobs transition in based on what our schools and our school leaders and our classroom teachers tell us they need,” Maggie Sullivan, the district’s executive director of human capital, said.

Seniority rules

Shetka is now in her third decade with Minneapolis Public Schools, having started part-time at the district in 1986. She’s completed two years of college, but at the time she was hired educational assistants didn’t need anything more than a high school diploma to work in schools. At Barton, Shetka supports a teacher in a kindergarten classroom for about half the day and supervises recess the other half of the day.

“By the end of the day I see all 780 kids,” she said.

She said the higher pay for associate educators was an enticement when the position was first created, but changing jobs would have cost Shetka her seniority.

If a long-serving educational assistant’s job is cut at one school, her contract gives her the right to take the same job at a different school, even if that means bumping a less-senior educational assistant. Even though they’re part of the same union bargaining group, associate educators don’t enjoy the same privileges.

From the principal’s perspective, that means they can interview and hire the associate educators they want for their schools, but there’s a chance their educational assistants could be bumped by a more-senior employees who are laid-off from somewhere else in the district.

“What we’re trying to get to in a lot of cases across the district — and we think about this with teachers, as well — is mutual-consent hiring. So, the employee wants to be there and the manager wants them there, as well,” Sullivan said. “That is part of the challenge with the (educational assistant) positions.”

Changing landscape

For the remaining educational assistants, the employment landscape changed dramatically as they were approaching retirement age.

Dianna Pedersen, a former educational assistant who is now unemployed, was laid off three springs in a row and didn’t return to the district this fall. Pedersen spent the majority of her 27-year district career at Ramsey International Fine Arts Center (a program relocated to Folwell in 2012), but had to move twice in her final years. Her hours were cut with each move.

“It’s a pretty emotional thing to lose your job you’ve had for 20 years,” said Pedersen, who had planned to stay with the district until retirement but is now taking care of grandchildren.

Lacking a two-year degree, Pedersen had no option to move into an associate educator position. There’s a Minnesota Department of Education-approved alternative to the degree — a passing grade on the ParaPro Assessment — but the Minneapolis district doesn’t accept it.

Pedersen said a degree doesn’t guarantee you know how to work with children.

“Years of working in a lunchroom when there’s maybe three staff in a lunchroom full of kids, you have to have some instincts,” she said.

Linnea Hackett, president of the educational support professionals union that represents both types of workers, said she’s been told by former district human capital employees that the two-year is more valuable than those decades of experience.

“If they like you, they love what you’re doing, (principals) generally find the money to keep you because of the fact that you’re cheaper than the (associate educator) position, if you’re doing the same job,” Hackett said. “But in our district, people are hired because of who they know, not what they know.”

Beginning to change

Things started to change for Minneapolis’ educational assistants under No Child Left Behind. The 2001 reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act added new minimum qualifications for educational assistants and other paraprofessionals who provided instructional support to students.

Hackett said the district had over 400 educational assistants around the time the law passed. The biggest drop in their numbers came then, when those with only a high school diploma were required to complete some post-secondary coursework or prove their skills in an assessment.

“I believe just in taking the test alone that year we lost 65,” Hackett said.

She said the union began working to develop a method of proving qualifications by portfolio with the Department of Education, but the district said they would not accept it. More recent contracts have updated the job description for educational assistants, who now must have the same two-year degree as associate educators to be hired.

Not that the district is hiring educational assistants; the union has blocked that move until they recall those recently laid off. Still, Hackett remains hopeful that retirements this year will open up new educational assistant positions for the first time since the early 2000s.

The creation of the associate educator position in Minneapolis dates back to about the same time as No Child Left Behind. Sullivan said the associate educator job was created “specifically to have a deeper focus on academics.”

Even as educational assistant positions have been dramatically reduced, Sullivan added, the total number of educational support professionals across the district has grown.