Education group considers solutions for issues facing Idaho education

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho - You'd usually find Jake Smulkowski and Erin Paradis in the classroom, not a hotel conference room. 

Smulkowski teaches at Ponderosa Elementary School, in Post Falls. He's been working with fourth and fifth grade students there for the past year. 

"I love it. I can't imagine doing anything else," Smulkowski said. 

Paradis spends her days teaching music to kingergarten through fifth grade students in Caldwell, Idaho. She said teaching is in her blood, so she loves working with kids in the Vallivue School District. 

"Everything we do is music and having fun and learning about what makes humans humans," Paradis

Even though Paradis and Smulkowski are  from different districts, but they're connected by a love for teaching and by their involvement in the Idaho Education Association (IEA). 

Idaho elementary and secondary teachers and educational support professionals make up the organization. Members find support, new connections, and advocacy through the group. 

Hundreds of these professionals gathered in Coeur d'Alene Friday for a weekend meeting to tackle some of the biggest issues facing public education. Smulkowski said one of the major topics is how to pay for public education. 

"It is in our best interest to fully fund education and to support all of the people who are working with our children," Smulkowski said. 

Money for schools has been a debate in Idaho for years. 

The 2019 state legislature worked toward overhauling the way the state pays for public schools, but in the end, it passed a pared down version of the original legislation, according to Smulkowski and Paradis. 

But, it's a start. Paradis said members of IEA were at the table to help with the legislation. 

"There was a lot of great work done. It just wasn't quite right yet," Paradis said. 

State leaders will likely take up the overhaul issue again next session and IEA members are expected to join the conversation again. 

The group is focused on advocacy, development, and support for teachers. Paradis used the group to help launch a new program that helps recruit, retain, and support new teachers. She said Idaho has enough new teachers graduating college to fill the need, but many go to other states for higher paying jobs and more resources. 

She wanted to change that through a new IEA program. 

"The association gave me a chance to be a leader and it taught me what it meant to be a true professional that's part of a greater good," Paradis said. 

IEA had anorther program featured at the weekend conference that is directly helping students. Teachers can request money from the IEA's Children Fund to pay for items a student may need, but can't afford. Requests have included new shoes or coats in the past. 

School districts, teachers, and other staff members filled a conference room at the Coeur d'Alene resort with donated items for a silent auction that will benefit the fund. That silent auction isn't open to the public, but people who want to donate to the fund can contact IEA directly. 

All of this work, and more, has happened outside of the classroom. It's extra work, but for teachers like Smulkowski and Paradis, it's worth it. 

They want to continue to see Idaho education improve so kids have their best shot at success. 

"Public educators in Idaho and across the country are working tirelessly every day and night, sometimes, to do what's best for students," Paradis said. 

The IEA conference runs through the weekend. 

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