First cohort of Purple Pathway for Paraeducators gears up for graduation

First cohort of Purple Pathway for Paraeducators gears up for graduation

Anna Flanders /

Among the hundreds graduating from the University of Northern Iowa this month are members of the inaugural cohort of the Purple Pathway for Paraeducators. Started in fall 2022, this program allows paraeducators with an associate’s degree to earn an elementary education degree online from UNI while continuing their work as teaching assistants or paraeducators. The program has attracted a diverse group of paras from throughout the state who want to take their passion for education to the next level.

Emily Pendleton in her classroom

“I love that I was able to use my experiences every day at work and apply that to my education,” said Emily Pendleton. “They took what I was doing and, in a sense, gave me credit for it. That was really important because I have a family and other responsibilities on top of schoolwork.”

Before becoming a paraeducator in the Cedar Falls Community School District, Pendleton had a background in business and worked in human resources. She became an associate to align her schedule with her two kids. After spending time helping in the classroom, she fell in love with education.

“The first year that I was a para, I was in preschool, and I worked with a super awesome teacher,” she said. “I was surprised at how much I liked being around other people's kids. I wasn't expecting how much I cared about them and how much I wanted to help them, and that made me really want to think about becoming a teacher.”

The principal at her school recommended she start the Purple Pathway. Since Pendleton had previously earned her master’s, she loved that the Purple Pathway was an accelerated program and had the flexibility she wanted in a degree program.

“This was such a great opportunity to be able to do it while working, and even though it was hard, I knew it was gonna be worth it,” she said.

For Savannah Spitz, becoming a teacher was always part of the plan. She earned her associate’s degree right out of high school and became a paraeducator in Ankeny. She was planning on going through UNI’s 2+2 elementary education program. But because she was already in a para role, UNI advisors recommended the Purple Pathway for Paraeducators. 

“It's just perfect,” she said of the program. “If it wasn't online, I wouldn't do it. UNI is two hours away from me and from my family, my job and everything. So the opportunity to get my degree online and have that flexibility was crucial.”

Since Spitz is one of the younger paraeducators in the program, she has enjoyed gleaning from the experiences of those who have been working in the classroom for longer periods of time. The cohort has a group chat they regularly use, and the members plan to meet up for the first time during Commencement.

Even though the classes have all been online, Spitz has still felt connected to her professors.

“The professors were super nice and understanding,” she said.

Pendleton and Spitz have spent their spring 2024 semester student teaching. They both started with a special education placement and finished in a kindergarten classroom.

For Pendleton, student teaching has been especially beneficial for teaching her how to lesson plan. It’s also given her the opportunity to form stronger relationships with students.

“My favorite thing about teaching is the personal connections with the kids,” she said. “I've been able to really get to know some of these kids super well, because I see them every day. So just being able to build those relationships with them and trying to be a positive person in their life has been super rewarding for me.”

Spitz has seen the most growth in her classroom management abilities.

Savannah Spitz in her classroom

“My classroom management skills have gotten so much better, especially during kindergarten, which was really my first time experiencing a whole class,” she explained. “My teacher told me she's so proud of how much I've grown since I started.”

Pendleton will be teaching fourth grade in Cedar Falls next year, and Spitz would love to teach kindergarten. They both highly recommend the Purple Pathway for Paraeducators.

“This has been an opportunity to get real-world experience and meet a lot of people that I’m going to be able to use as resources forever,” said Pendleton. “Even the professors really do their best to try to make it doable with school and work.”

“I would recommend it because it's very manageable,” said Spitz. “It's affordable. You still get to work while you're going to school, and you continue to get paid as a para while you're student teaching. There are so many benefits!”