Scheduling, admittedly, was a big part of why Carla McConnell got into education in the first place. While she volunteered with the booster club at Newton's Sunset Elementary once her children started attending the school, she graduated to a bigger role when her youngest entered preschool — with the timing allowing her to take a position as an instructional aide at Sunset.

"When our youngest was going to preschool I wanted to go back to the workforce a little bit," McConnell said. "I looked around and being a para or instructional aide fit perfectly with their school schedule. At that time, I did it because I could be in their school at the same time; I didn't need any child care. That's how it started, and then I just loved it so I've just stayed here."

Now, after 20 years as an aide at Sunset, McConnell is going back to school — enrolling in online courses through Wichita State University to earn her bachelor's degree in elementary education, which she will receive upon completion of the two-year program.

Being part of the Teacher Apprentice Program at WSU (with Kansas State University, Fort Hays State University and others providing similar programs to allow paraprofessionals to pursue degrees in education) — and receiving financial aid through USD 373's new Grow Your Own Teacher Program — the timing, again, seemed right for McConnell.

Relatively new as both programs are, the combination worked out to push McConnell further down the educational path toward a career she noted was not part of the plan when she started as an aide. With her children grown and out of school and a friend alerting her to the existence of the programs to help paraprofessionals, though, it seemed all the pieces were falling in place to allow McConnell to pursue a teaching degree.

"It fit because I could keep my job, I didn't have to quit my job, and I could still take all the classes to get my degree," McConnell said. "When I'd thought about it before, I would always have had to quit my job to go back to school, and so since I could keep my job here and finish my degree that's what made me think now is the time."

Over the summer, McConnell took her first classes in the two-year program and will continue with classes over the next five semesters — balancing working full-time with being a full-time student. She is enrolled in 14 hours in the current semester, which started last week.

Having online classes, McConnell noted she can work at her own pace — and having a detailed calendar with due dates on her assignments through the semester also helps.

As an aide, McConnell will continue to help in the classroom in math, reading and/or writing — whether in small groups or individually — at all grade levels (K-4) while balancing her course load. While enrolled in classes as part of an "internship" through the WSU program, some of her assignments may also transfer over into the classrooms at Sunset (like writing lessons plans and teaching said lesson).

Similarly, McConnell is hopeful prior experiences will transfer over when she transitions into a full-time teaching role.

"I've worked with so many great teachers over the years; I've had two wonderful principals. (There are) lots of teachers I have picked stuff up from, just by working alongside them, so hopefully I picked up classroom management techniques, reading strategies, how to do a guided reading group or organizational-type things just from being in the room all these years," McConnell said. "I have some experience already, more than just student teaching might give me for a semester. I've been in the classroom for years."

Eventually, McConnell noted she would hope to end up in any K-4 classroom in the district — as each grade level has unique elements that would make it a joy to teach and she would be comfortable in any of those settings.

Part of the stipulations of the district's Grow Your Own Teacher program is for approved applicants to sign on to teach in USD 373 for a number of years equal to the number of semesters financial aid is received — something McConnell admitted is a big boost to allow her to pursue this opportunity.

Additionally, the program is intended to encourage full-time workers with a passion for teaching to pursue that degree — to help address a teaching shortage — and McConnell admitted she has experienced that in droves as one of the first applicants to be approved for the program.

"It's nice to have the support of my co-workers, my colleagues, the teachers here, my principal; all the way to the district office, I feel supported in my undertaking of the degree right now because it's kind of a big jump for me to try and do it," McConnell said. "I feel like I have a good, encouraging support system."