Teachers across Minnesota must prove they are learning and keeping up their skills to maintain their teaching licenses, so it’s not unusual to see them taking professional development classes.

One metro-area district is not only providing development opportunities for free online but offering the classes to all staff members, including custodians, food service workers and teaching assistants.

The SouthWest Metro Educational Cooperative is a district that educates students with special needs from 10 school districts in Scott and Carver counties.

The district has offered free online classes through Whitewater Learning, a Minneapolis provider of online professional development modules, to all 200 staff members since May.

“We feel it’s really important to have that equity among our staff,” said Chris Hansen, professional development coordinator for SouthWest Metro.

Many district programs deal with special education, so it’s crucial for anyone interacting with students to be knowledgeable about complex issues, she said.

Class subjects include cyberbullying, autism and Native American culture.

Everyone has taken at least one class, but some have taken as many as 26, which range from one to six hours in length. Among the top “students” are a food service worker who has taken nine classes and a secretary who has logged 13, Hansen said.

While many nonlicensed staff members take classes for their own edification, they have another incentive: Their contract says they can earn more money by continuing their education, Hansen said.

But they must do so on their own time, and life can get busy, said Sandy Pelava, a teaching assistant for nine years.

Online classes are convenient because you can take them any time, coming back to finish later, Pelava said.

She has completed 30 hours of classes, about half online, which equates to a 40-cent-an-hour increase in pay.

“I think it’s an awesome resource to have available,” she said. “It’s important that everyone knows how to work with these kiddos.”