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The PRACEP Para Pathway

by Virginia (Ginger) Hilleary

Three years ago, Piedmont Regional Adult and Career Education Programs’ (PRACEP) Regional Specialist exclaimed, “We need to have a Plugged-In cohort this year!” There was only one problem: what were we going to do? Other regions had Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) and welding and Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) programs, all of which sounded great. I asked myself, “What is needed? Where do we start?” Time was of the essence and as a new program manager, I was hesitant to step too far outside my comfort zone. What I knew was teaching, teachers, and teacher’s aides (education paraprofessionals or para-educators or “paras”), so that is where I began.

Fulfilling a Need and Creating an Opportunity

Researching employment statistics revealed that school systems are often one of the largest employers, especially in rural regions. All of the counties in our region (9), as well as those bordering us, had multiple openings for paras – plus these jobs offer benefits and can be a springboard to a career in education. But more than anything else, becoming a “para” would give our participants the opportunity to work as part of an education team and carry the moniker of “professional.”


In the Commonwealth of Virginia, a para in a Title I school must have a high school diploma or GED® credential, an associate degree or two years of postsecondary education, or pass the paraprofessional (ParaPro) certification. A candidate must also pass a background check and be CPR/First Aid certified. Beyond that, orientation and training for the position in our region was non-existent (due to funding issues), and an unscientific survey of human resource departments estimated failure rates for the ParaPro exam at 30-40%. All of this meant that the need was there, and so was the opportunity to create a pathway to a career.

Developing the Program

To make the cohort work, we needed to develop a curriculum, find industry experts, get instructors, leverage partners for work-force activities, and find space. Our priority was to engage a program coordinator (Joyce D’Urso) who worked with staff to create program guidelines based on education best practice and the requirements for the ParaPro test. We also involved a high school equivalency (HSE) instructional advisor (Ericka Pirtle) who provided guidance for our participants and kept them on track to GED® credential completion. Fortunately, we could “mine” our instructional staff for much of the expertise needed for training, as many of our instructors had worked with paras in a variety of classroom settings.

Our coordinator reached out to our local Virginia Career Works center for help with interview skills, resumé writing, and job search proficiency. In our second year, we also added a project management mini-course to help with team-building skills.


From the beginning, our goal was to have anyone who started the program, finish the program. We explained our program to our local Workforce Development Board and Business Services Team and asked them for referrals. Even though we used social media to get the word out, experience taught us that the best way to recruit was through face-to-face meetings where we could fully explain the program and requirements of a participant. This was both time-consuming and exhausting, but after two years of working through the program, it is, for us, the best recruiting tool. We also met with church leaders, services to abused families (SAFE), superintendents, civic groups, and other organizations.

Calendar and Scheduling

Our process included intake, a lengthy interview, and an assessment. We made it very clear that this was a demanding program. The calendar that we gave each participant displayed six months of activity, showing that if they stayed with the program and committed to doing the work; participants could receive their GED® credential, an industry-recognized credential (ParaPro certification), First Aid/CPR training, and a digital literacy certificate, as well as training in working with students with learning challenges and in child abuse recognition and intervention.

As our participants worked their way through the program, it was amazing to see growth in both their skill level and confidence. Our first group named themselves the “PIVA Pioneers,” and they set the bar for our para program. Both groups participated in our graduation ceremony, where they presented their capstone project. They shared their experience, and what came through was how much each of them had grown and changed. At the first graduation, every one of the “pioneers” was offered a position in the schools. Three of our “grads” are enrolled in community college, and all are employed.

This year PRACEP will offer two para cohorts in different parts of the region. We are, once again, actively recruiting for another group of participants who will touch our hearts and prove once again that (to quote W.B. Yeats), “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

Ginger Hilleary

Piedmont Regional Adult & Career Education Program’s (PRACEP) Regional Program Manager, Virginia (Ginger) Hilleary is enjoying her fourth year with the organization. Prior to this, she served as Executive Director of Literacy Volunteers of Fauquier County for 14 years. Ms. Hilleary is one of the founders of the Commonwealth’s annual literacy conference, and in 2014 she received the Nancy Jiranek Award for exceptional leadership from the Virginia Literacy Foundation for her continued contributions to the cause.