UNI to offer new online degree pathway for paraeducators to earn teaching degree

UNI to offer new online degree pathway for paraeducators to earn teaching degree

Purple Pathway for Paraeducators

A new online, accelerated pathway to a bachelor’s degree offered by the University of Northern Iowa could greatly increase the number of elementary and special education teachers across the state.

Applications are being accepted beginning June 1 for “Purple Pathway for Paraeducators,” which begins in fall 2022 and leads to an elementary education degree. 

Building on the 2+2 program in elementary education’s 25 years of success, this streamlined online program is specifically designed for paraeducators with associate’s degrees who can draw on their experience in the classroom while working toward a four-year degree. 

Paraeducators can earn their teaching degree in two years and, upon successful completion of student teaching, be eligible for licensure in Iowa for two endorsements: elementary K-6 and strategist I, the special education endorsement for working with students with mild to moderate special needs. 

Paraeducators go by various names: paraprofessionals, educational aides, teaching assistants, educational associates, instructional aides and behavior interventionists. They assist teachers in the classroom, often working with students who have challenging educational and development needs. Many have an associate’s degree. 

Addressing immediate teacher staffing needs through supporting paraeducators for career growth is the focus of the recently announced Teacher and Paraeducator Registered Apprenticeship (TPRA), a competitive grant from the Iowa Department of Education to support 100 paraeducators to complete their teaching degree. School districts across the state submitted applications by April 15 to seek funding to support paraeducators in their districts to participate in “grow your own” programs to supplement teaching workforces. 

“This new apprenticeship program responds to an ongoing teacher shortage while providing financial support for these students to make it happen. That’s great,” said Dean Colleen Mulholland, EdD. “As we looked at what paraeducators need and the numbers in districts across Iowa, we also realized we have a very special opportunity to extend the impact even further by scaling up a program that could work for many, many more.” 

Based on IDOE data, an estimated 15,670 paraeducators have credentials to work in Iowa. Of that, about 7,500 help staff elementary classrooms, which is the focus of UNI’s new pathway. 

To be eligible for the Purple Pathway, paraeducators must be employed; have support from a building or district administrator and mentor teachers; hold an associate’s degree; and be able to commit to an online schedule that includes one three-hour synchronous (real time) online evening session per week and one six-hour synchronous Saturday a month. All coursework is online, including additional asynchronous work-time. Paraeducators on this pathway will be able to apply their classroom roles and experiences to assignments and coursework objectives. Trained classroom teachers will serve as mentors onsite. 

The new pathway builds on the Teach Waterloo initiative, which offers another type of 2+2 program specifically for paraeducators and other support personnel of color in the Waterloo Community School District. Started in 2018, Teach Waterloo is a community partnership that includes scholarship dollars from McElroy Trust, the Waterloo Schools Foundation, and John Deere Waterloo Operations. This initiative has evolved. Coursework has shifted from face-to-face classes to accelerated, hybrid and online offerings, a change which the district and students welcomed for greater flexibility as students were going to class during the workday.

“We recognize it’s a tough balancing act for adult professionals to work and study at the same time. We also better understand the lived experience paraeducators bring. They are already in classrooms and have a base of knowledge,” Mulholland said. “Those learnings have led us to take an intensive look at how we can take advantage of this experience and streamline the coursework for our para students while maintaining the standards expected by us and the state,” Mulholland said. 

As UNI accepts its first Purple Pathway for Paraeducators applications for this fall, the next cohort of Teach Waterloo fellows will fold into this pathway. 

As with all online programming at UNI, the coursework is offered in conjunction with UNI Online & Distance Education, using online learning platforms and services designed for adult learners. Webinars for interested students and school administrators are planned beginning May 20. For webinar, program and application information, go to the Purple Pathway for Paraeducators page at: online.uni.edu/online-programs/undergraduate-programs/purple-pathway-paraeducators


Stacy McGauvran-Hruby, Marketing & Communications Manager, UNI College of Education, 319-273-7615, mcgauvrs@uni.edu

Beth Bruns, Marketing & Communications Manager, UNI Online & Distance Education, 319-273-7483, beth.bruns@uni.edu