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Case Studies

University of Northern Iowa's Purple Pathway for Paraeducators

Before the state established its apprenticeship program, the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) put together its own grow-your-own program for paraeducators with the goal of increasing the number of educators of color. The program is designed specifically for paraeducators working in K-6 buildings.

By Kristen McCaw | January 27, 2023

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY | UNI's Purple Pathway for Paraeducators is designed specifically for paraeducators working in K-6 buildings. The program intends to increase the number of educators of color. Graduates are dual endorsed in K-6 and special education to address district shortages and expand their career opportunities.


UNI's Purple Pathway for Paraeducators program intends to increase the number of paraeducators of color. The program was designed so that any paraeducator who participated in the program would receive a dual endorsement in K-6 elementary education and Strategist 1 (a special education endorsement), helping to address school district shortages and broadening the career opportunities available to graduates.


Established in 2021, the program serves 68 students. Students complete in 2 years, and the program is fully online. The cost is about $20K total per student before Pell grants and state funding, which 50% of students receive.


UNI's Purple Pathway for Paraeducators program is designed specifically for paraeducators working in K-6 buildings. In order to participate in the program, candidates have to be endorsed by their building supervisor and have completed an AA or AS degree with a focus on teacher preparation, rather than general education. Like other university programs, a minimum 2.5 cumulative program GPA is required.

Courses & Credits

UNI's Purple Pathway for Paraeducators program is designed to accommodate the busy schedule of working paraeducators, so all courses are offered at night and online. Classes meet on a predetermined weekday for 3 hours, and on a predetermined Saturday for 6 hours on a monthly basis. The program is an 80-credit program and classes are structured in an 8-week format, where participants take one 8-credit class every 8 weeks. This format allows participants to complete the program in two years (two classes each summer are required). The program counts the hours of in-classroom experience as internship hours, so they apply to the required credit hours.

Hands-On Experience

All of the students in the program are getting hands-on experience as a paraeducator. Because the program trains students in both general and special education settings, the building supervisors for the program understand that there may be shorter chunks of time where participants need to temporarily move within the building to complete targeted activities. For example, if a paraeducator is working 1:1 with students because they have a special education assignment, the building supervisors know that they may need to be in a general education setting at times. Similarly, if a paraeducator has a general education assignment, they may need to work in a special education setting at times.

Getting a Credential

Upon completion of the program and the necessary 80 credits, participants will be required to submit materials to the state in order to obtain their teaching credential. The materials typically include proof of degree completion, passing scores on state mandated exams, completion of a certain number of supervised teaching hours, and a submission of a portfolio showing evidence of their teaching competencies. Once the state approves the submission, the participant will be issued a teaching credential, which will enable them to legally teach in the state.


An important component of the program is the mentorship component. Each participant is paired with a mentor within their building, who is typically a current teacher within the school district. Occasionally, an instructional coach or administrator may also serve as a mentor. The mentor plays a crucial role in providing guidance, support, and feedback to the participant throughout the program. They will observe the participant teaching, provide feedback, and help the participant navigate any challenges that may arise during the program.

Continuous Improvement

To further increase flexibility for participants, UNI's "2 + 2" pathway, originally designed to support students who are place-bound and start their program at a community college, has been improved to be fully online so that paraeducators can more easily take advantage of the offering. The program allows students to pursue endorsements such as middle school, early childhood, and reading.


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