Gwinnett school district struggles to hire paraprofessionals

The J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center in Suwanee, Georgia, on Wednesday, July 28, 2021. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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The J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center in Suwanee, Georgia, on Wednesday, July 28, 2021. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Gwinnett County Public Schools is struggling to hire paraprofessionals, who are critical to helping many special-needs students.

The district hired 400 paraprofessionals this year, but it’s not enough, officials said. So the district’s board of education recently decided to contract with a third-party vendor — ESS ― to fill more than 130 vacancies.

“We hear the need and we feel the sense of urgency, and to date everything that we’ve tried has not yielded the results that we desire,” said Monica Batiste, associate superintendent for human resources.

She asked the board to waive the bidding process for a staffing firm because it would take 45 days. The need for paraprofessionals is that severe, she said.

Paraprofessionals supervise and help special-needs students in school, providing individual attention and managing behavior. They also meet with families.

Gwinnett’s struggle to fill the positions comes at a time when schools across the nation are grappling with shortages in low-paid support positions. The district pays paraprofessionals about $11 per hour, but does not pay health or retirement benefits under the contract with ESS.

Board member Tarece Johnson said she would like to see paraprofessionals receive full benefits and better pay. Paraprofessional pay recently increased from $9 per hour.

“I don’t think we should be competing with McDonald’s,” she said.

Of the nearly 180,000 students in the Gwinnett school district, 13% receive special education, although many do not require paraprofessionals.

The Gwinnett district is working with more than 300 college education students who are interested in substituting but paraprofessional positions conflict with their school schedules, Batiste said.

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ESS will hire all Gwinnett paraprofessionals while the contract is in effect, Batiste said. The school district will pay the company $16,000 per paraprofessional, which Batiste said is cost neutral.

“The most innovative strategy I could think of is to try to find a way to increase their pay,” Board Chair Everton Blair said. “I think you would find some success there. I recognize the financial challenge we have with the budget we’ve already approved, but I don’t think it’s rocket science. People will do the job if we respect the difficulty of the work and pay them accordingly.”

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The district also contracts with external companies for school nutrition workers and speech-language pathologists, Batiste said.

Karen Watkins, board vice chair, said everyone understands the job market is not in the school district’s favor.

“It’s very difficult to hire folks right now and find people who want to come into education, given the climate that we’re in,” she said.