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Grant to Minot State will help paras become licensed special education teachers

File Photo Holly Pedersen, head of the special education department at Minot State University, and special education assistant professor Wenjing Zheng are shown in this July 2019 photo. Both are working with a pilot project that will help special education para professionals earn four-year degrees and become licensed special education teachers.

A pilot project at Minot State University to help paraprofessionals working with special education students earn their four-year degrees has been so successful that it will be expanded this fall.

Holly Pedersen, chair of the special education department at Minot State, said Tuesday that the original pilot project provided $252,000 in funding to help nine students go through the program. The project was funded by the Department of Public Instruction office of special education.

“We got more than 70 applications,” said Pedersen, when the pilot project was announced last spring, but there was only funding available for the nine.

This week it was announced that the pilot project for the para to teacher pathway program will be expanded using a $750,000 grant funded with federal dollars provided through the CARES Act. The grant funding will provide an additional 20 scholarships to help paras become licensed teachers. Scholarships will cover the cost of seven semesters of instruction for each scholarship recipient.

Pedersen said there is a shortage of special education teachers statewide and across the country. One of the barriers for paraprofessionals to go on to complete their education is that many have families and need to continue working to support them and there is a financial barrier to go back to college.

Minot State offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees for special education teachers and Pedersen said most of the classes that the paraprofessionals will need to take are offered online or via distance learning.

The ideal candidate for the program is a working paraprofessional who already has a two-year associate degree, earned good grades, and has strong support from the schools where he or she work and teachers who will be able to be mentors along the way.

The pilot project was the brainchild of both Pedersen and Wenjing Zheng, an assistant professor in the special education department and director of the project.

“We are thrilled to have this opportunity to partner with DPI and find new solutions to address the special education teacher shortage that is happening nationwide,” said Pedersen. “Our team is ready to add this new pathway that’s designed to leverage the experience of working paraprofessionals.”

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