Katie Bonar was about to embark on her sixth year of working as a paraeducator for Burlington schools when she got a highly consequential phone call.

It was from Human Resources Director Laci Johnson. She wanted to know if Bonar would be interested in enrolling in the University of Northern Iowa’s Purple Pathway for Paraeducators program following a last-minute withdrawal.

“She just kind of gave me the rundown and I knew if I hung up the phone, the next person down the list would be called,” Bonar said. “Opportunities just don’t happen like that.”

UNI long has offered the accelerated elementary education licensure program for paraeducators, but the particular cohort Bonar would join had some added advantages thanks to Burlington Community School District’s participation in the Teacher and Paraeducator Registered Apprenticeship Program.

TPRA arose from a combination of American Rescue Plan Act dollars and a growing need for teachers. The two-year grant program pays tuition for paras working in participating districts who already hold either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree to enroll in programs like Purple Pathway, along with a portion of para salaries throughout the program’s duration.

“It was a wonderful opportunity to give paraeducators who did want to become teachers an opportunity to earn a free bachelor’s in K-6 education with a (K-8) special education endorsement,” Outreach and Grants Supervisor Cassie Gerst said.

“So what’s cool about that is to get those two degrees in two years, I have not heard of a lot of people who get that opportunity,” said Cristina White, an instructional coach who has been the multi-classroom leader for those participating in BCSD’s iteration of the TPRA program. “For them to go to class for two years and come out with both endorsements, it makes them extremely marketable because they’re able to be placed in a variety of positions and high-need positions. A lot of them were very interested in special ed positions, which is typically an area that we have a shortage in and a hard time filling all those positions.”

The idea of teaching wasn’t new to Bonar. Her mother has taught for 40 years and a family friend had planted the seed that she follow in her mother’s footsteps early on in her para career.

“What really always stuck in my brain was actually a former AEA employee, her name is Nancy Gutman, and I’d known her for a long time and went to school with her daughter, and my first year working as a para, I was at Ed Stone, and she stopped me in a doorway and said … ‘You need to be a teacher.’ ”

Gutman followed up with emails containing information about grants and other opportunities that could help her pursue higher education.

“I still have the emails,” Bonar said.

Paraeducator Kate Bonar poses for a photo with a group of smiling students
Katie Bonar poses for a photo with Tracy Walding’s third grade class at North Hill Elementary School. Bonar spent eight weeks student teaching in Walding’s classroom while working toward her teaching degree via the Teacher and Paraeducator Registered Apprenticeship and University of Northern Iowa’s Purple Pathway programs.

But having earned a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts and Communication Design, Bonar already had student loans to pay off. She was also a single mother to a 3-year-old, and the idea of juggling multiple jobs and a toddler and school was daunting.

She continued to work as a para. The job allowed her to observe and learn from veteran teachers while building meaningful relationships with students. The idea of becoming a teacher herself, like the emails from Gutman sitting long-dormant in her inbox, lay tucked away in the back of her mind.

But then came the phone call, and with it a chance to seize on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

With only two weeks before the start of the program, Bonar accepted Johnson’s offer.

“As a single mom, you can’t just take off and go to a class and you still have to work, and at the time I was working two to three jobs, so I’m trying to survive and do all this and then this opportunity happened, and I was like there’s no reason not to take it anymore,” Bonar said. “This is the next logical step for my daughter and I to have a better life.”

Bonar jumped in with both feet. By day, she was a para, by night, a student.

“I’ve had good support, but it’s not for the faint of heart,” Bonar said. “You can’t just wing it.”

The program was equal parts condensed and intense, with five or six courses being completed each semester. Every eight weeks, Bonar would complete either two or three courses, meeting virtually with up to three professors over the course of three hours on Wednesday nights. The cohort also met for day-long sessions at least two Saturdays of every course period.

The Saturday sessions, Bonar said, bore the most semblance to a normal class. She and her fellow BCSD Purple Pathway navigators — Troy Boelens, Katy Conger, Steve Davis-Quick, Hadley Holtkamp, Kristin Kauffman, Amethyst Lehman and Angela Pella — would meet up to attend these classes together.

“It was a great shared experience with those people,” Bonar said. “You know you’re part of a larger group (statewide), but the fact that there’s eight of us, there’s a small group and we get to cheer each other on.”

Over the summer, they completed 16 credit hours.

Between work and assignments and classes, Bonar and her classmates also had to complete a four-page list of tasks d

emonstrating their mastery of a wide range of skills such as referring to learning targets, working with a grade-level team to create assessments, and choosing the best materials for the standards they taught and the students they worked with.

“I’m really proud of the work they’ve done,” White said. “I’ve been able to have a front-row seat to all of this through their eyes, and they have all worked really hard. They have been working full time in their jobs and they also have been basically full-time students all of these semesters and they also have all of these things in their personal life, their children and their outside obligations. There’s a lot on their plates.”

They’ve also been student-teaching. Bonar first student-taught Tracy Walding’s third grade at North Hill before moving over to Susan Vandenberg’s classroom at Aldo. Bonar said her experience as a para has gone a long way toward helping her build the skills she will utilize as a teacher.

I’m really proud of the work they’ve done.

CristinA White, Multi Classroom leader

“Having that background of being a para and being actually in the schools and seeing how it operates and knowing the back end of it, because people think because they went to school once, they know all about school, that’s not true,” Bonar said. “There’s so much on the other side of things that you don’t even realize, and after being in that environment and getting that confidence to be able to manage anything with regard to responsibilities whether you’re a para or a teacher, it gives you that background.”

Vandenberg has been impressed by what she’s seen from Bonar’s student teaching in her classroom.

“Our district is very lucky to have Kate Bonar as a teacher,” Vandenberg said. “She’s very thorough, she’s consistent. She’s a seasoned teacher, but she’ll be a first-year teacher.”

Bonar looks forward to accepting her diploma in Cedar Falls on May 11 in front of her now 10-year-old daughter, as well as to the future before them.

We at BCSD, meanwhile, look forward to seeing the long-lasting impact each of these eight Purple Pathway graduates will have on our students as they embark on their careers as teachers.

“This grant has afforded these individuals a very unique and wonderful opportunity to make their dreams of becoming a classroom teacher a reality,” Johnson said. “They have all worked extremely hard and juggled what was already a busy schedule before they began the program. We are very proud of all of them and are happy to have them begin their new role in the district as teachers with the 2024-2025 school year. I would also like to give a huge thank you to Cassie Gerst, who managed this huge grant and Cristina White who helped these grant recipients every step of the way. We want to congratulate each of them, they should be extremely proud.”

Meet the 8 Purple Pathway Graduates

Kristin Kauffman

Kristin Kauffman

Years as a para: 9

Reason for wanting to teach: I have been encouraged to go back to school by multiple coworkers and staff in Burlington for many years. I enjoyed my time as a paraprofessional and thought it was time to take the steps to become certified.

Future plans: I will be teaching the Level 2 ID/Autism at Blackhawk next year

Biggest takeaway from Purple Pathway/TPRA program: The importance of time management to accomplish everything I had going on and how to meet students where they are at in their learning journey when they join our schools.

Katy Conger

Katy Conger

Years as a para: 6 as both a para and long-term sub

Reason for wanting to teach: My 4th grade teacher was a huge influence for me. She was an amazing teacher. I want to make a difference in my students’ lives. I want them to think of me years later as helping them.

Future plans: Next year I am going to be the STRAT 2 (LD/BD) teacher at North Hill next year and I am so excited.

Biggest takeaway from Purple Pathway/TPRA program: Never give up!! Keep going! With the help of the Burlington School District I was able to make my dream come true.

Troy Boelens

Troy Boelens

Years as a para: 8

Reason for wanting to teach: I wanted to become a teacher because it offers a lot of variety and it’s a way to serve my community. Teaching also gives me the creativity and independence I would want in a career. I have worked with children most of my life, whether it is coaching or in a school setting. I love to help build skills and knowledge for young children. I want to make a difference in people’s lives in any way I can.

Future plans: I was hired to be the 5th/6th Strat 1 teacher at Aldo Leopold Intermediate School. My long-term goal is to become a Physical Education teacher for the district in the future.

Biggest takeaway from Purple Pathway/TPRA program: The biggest lesson I learned while participating in the Purple Pathways Program was Time Management. I learned how to juggle being a father, coach, student, and full-time employee all at the same time.

Steve Davis-Quick

Steve Davis-Quick

Years as a para: 3 as a para, 2 as a long-term sub

Reason for wanting to teach: One of the big reasons I wanted to go back to school for a teaching position is because a number of people over at Aldo wondered where I would be teaching the next year, and they were surprised that I wasn’t actually a licensed teacher, only a substitute. They encouraged me to school online and get my license.

Future plans: I am going to be staying in the Burlington district for the near future: next school year I will be at Edward Stone as a Strat I Special Education teacher.

Biggest takeaway from Purple Pathway/TPRA program: One of the biggest lessons I have learned in the Purple Pathway program would be that there are many highly talented people in education, and I have been fortunate to work with many of them in Burlington and throughout the state.

Kate Bonar

Kate Bonar

Years as a para: 8

Reason for wanting to teach: I felt it was a natural progression for me to teach.

Future plans: I am excited to start working in BCSD next year and see where the path takes me.

Biggest takeaway from Purple Pathway/TPRA program: One of the biggest lessons I have learned in the PP program is that being in a community is really important to me especially throughout this program and the support I received as well as in my career, my continued learning/teaching and personal life.

Biggs Amethyst 18

Amethyst Lehman

Years as a para: 3

Reason for wanting to teach: I love working with students and getting to help them learn and grow.

Future plans: I am happy to announce that I’ll be teaching at North Hill Elementary next school year!

Biggest takeaway from Purple Pathway/TPRA program: Education is a team profession! You cannot do it alone. I am so grateful for the team I’ve had behind me that’s helped me grow and prepare for my teaching career. I’ve learned so much from my fellow Grayhounds, and I’m excited for what’s to come next.

Hadley Holtkamp

Hadley Holtkamp

Years as a para: 2

Reason for wanting to teach: I have had teachers during my time in school that have positively impacted my life and helped shape me into the person I am today. I have always had a passion for helping people and serving those in my community. Teaching gives me the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others in the classroom and beyond.

Future plans: In August, I will be teaching at BHS in a Special Education ID/Autism classroom.

Biggest takeaway from Purple Pathway/TPRA program: I have learned that education can be a challenging field but it is also a very rewarding one. Teachers are required to wear many hats throughout the day. The Purple Pathway program has been able to privilege me with the perspective of being a student while also being inside the classroom the entire time. This perspective has made the program an unforgettable experience.

Angela Pella

Angela Pella

Years as a para: 5

Reason for wanting to teach: In my role as a paraprofessional, I often helped students practice their skills. Sharing their pride as they overcame challenges or mastered new concepts inspired me to teach.

Future plans: Start teaching for BCSD!

Biggest takeaway from Purple Pathway/TPRA program: Managing the overwhelming challenges of taking a full course load while still working full-time and being available to my family has taught me I’m a lot tougher than I thought!

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