CFT sponsors bill to assist support staff transition to certificated status

When Shannon Ferguson was a 20-something, she didn’t really focus on her community college studies, and after a few semesters her father suggested she look for a job with good benefits.

“He said that soon his benefits wouldn’t cover me anymore,” Ferguson recalled. “Dad was a teacher and mom was a paraeducator, so I naturally thought of applying with the Oxnard high school district.”

That was 21 years ago, and Ferguson only needed a high school diploma and to pass a district skills test to become a teaching aide. Since then she has risen through the ranks working with special needs students. And every year she buried the thought of finishing her bachelor’s degree.
“I always wanted to go back to school, but I had two kids and took a break from school.”

Until three years ago, when Ferguson set her sights on completing her bachelor’s and earning a credential as an education specialist at California Lutheran University. Now in her first year as a teacher, she works with students with moderate to severe disabilities at Hueneme High School. As when she was a para, she is a member of the Oxnard Federation of Teachers and School Employees, AFT Local 1273.

“I had pretty much topped out as a para. I was at the top step and wasn’t going to make any more money. Now, even at the lowest step as a teacher, I’m making more and it will only get better.”

Ferguson isn’t alone. Each year, growing numbers of classified employees and paraeducators overcome a range of academic and economic challenges to earn teaching credentials. In the process they are raising their incomes, diversifying faculty ranks, and now, helping to fill the statewide teaching shortage.

CFT-sponsored legislation could kick that trend into overdrive. Assembly Bill 2122 by Kevin McCarthy (D-Sacramento) would provide grants to school districts and county offices of education to help classified staff earn four-year degrees and teacher credentials.

“I had pretty much topped out as a para. I was at the top step and wasn’t going to make any more money. Now, even at the lowest step as a teacher, I’m making more and it will only get better.”

Districts and county offices would apply for competitive grants, because not all are facing teacher shortages. Those that receive a grant would be required to notify classified employees that funds are available. Each district would determine how to award grants to applicants based on criteria from the Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

“I had pretty much topped out as a para. I was at the top step and wasn’t going to make any more money. Now, even at the lowest step as a teacher, I’m making more and it will only get better.”

— Shannon Ferguson, first-year teacher and former paraeducator, Oxnard school district

Economic factors are one of the hardest obstacles for returning students. As envisioned now, participants would receive up to $4,000 annually to pay for tuition and books. Ferguson, for example, racked up more than $50,000 in student debt.

“I wish they had the grants when I went for my credential,” she said. “Now my biggest challenge will be paying those student loans.”
During long nights of studying after work and household chores, Ferguson often questioned her decision to go for a credential, especially when the workload cut into time with her children. In the long run, though, she decided the effort would teach her daughter and son, now 13 and 11 years old, a good lesson: “Don’t put off finishing college. It only gets harder the longer you wait.”

The experience has also given Ferguson a new viewpoint on her 21 years in a classroom.
“Paras work just as hard as teachers, and the work wouldn’t get done without them, but now I can see the job from both sides. As a para, I 
always wondered about some of the things that teachers do. Now I have answers.”
And she has new questions. “I never considered it before, but now I’m thinking about going a step further and earning a master’s degree.”

— By Steve Weingarten, CFT Reporter

Learn more

> Read the full text of CFT-sponsored legislation AB 2122 that provides grants to districts and county offices to assist classified employees with college expenses.