NEWTON — 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.

"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."

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.

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."