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"The range and flexibility of paraeducator positions make it difficult for most folks to understand exactly where our role begins and ends. We are the mortar that fits where it needs to fit to keep the whole structure together." -Sandie Blankenship, Special Education Paraeducator, North Kingstown, Rhode Island
The demands of classroom instruction are well-documented and daunting. When coupled with students needing special assistance, the prospect of authentic, lasting learning can seem next to impossible. This might all be true were it not for the work of Paraeducators. They provide valued instrumental support to students in both regular and special education classes and, in many districts, work side-by-side with the teachers helping severely-disabled students obtain the same valuable education which other students receive.
The changing landscape of public education has had a significant impact on the roles of support professionals who serve in our schools. Teacher shortages, increasing numbers of English language learners, and the rising enrollment of students with disabilities and other special needs are just some of the factors that make the need for a dynamic school team more necessary than ever. In this challenging environment, paraeducators -- also known as paraprofessionals -- play an increasingly critical role in improving student achievement.
Paraeducator means "along side of " and like their counterparts in the legal and medical fields -- paralegal and paramedics -- they assist and support the work team in a variety of ways. In many districts, these special professionals live in the school neighborhood, speak the language of the students and provide a special liaison to the community and its culture.
Employment of paraeducators has grown steadily and their functions have changed dramatically since they were introduced into classrooms as teacher aides almost 40 years ago. Their duties are no longer limited to recordkeeping, preparing materials, or monitoring students in lunchrooms and other settings. Today, paraeducators are active members in teams that provide instruction and other direct services to students and their parents.
Who are Paraeducators:
While many of today's paraeducators originally came into the education system due to federal programs designed to provide supplemental or special services to groups of children facing academic obstacles, it didn't take long to realize that they would need ongoing professional development to meet the complex needs of these students.
"The range and flexibility of paraprofessional positions make it difficult for most folks to understand exactly where our role begins and ends," says Sandie Blankenship, a special education paraeducator in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. "But I feel like we're the mortar that fits where it needs to fit to keep the whole structure together."
Across America, paraeducators are indeed "keeping it together" by supporting and strengthening the curriculum taught by teachers, assisting with school instructional programs, and enabling teachers to spend more individualized time with students. Because of this, paraprofessionals need and want professional training.
Delaware's Gail Uncapher, former President of the Red Clay Paraprofessional Association in Wilmington, says training is especially important because so many paraprofessionals work directly with students.
"Paraprofessionals in Red Clay often have no choice but to deal with the behavior of not only our own students, but other students who are causing trouble," she explains. "If we attend a training session on how to handle discipline with these students then we are armed with practical tools that we really need."
In this district, Uncapher, who has been working with mentally challenged children for 30 years, recently developed a one-day training event for her colleagues -- with no financial support from the school district. "I'm absolutely committed to getting my peers some training, so I simply ask potential trainers if they will work for free," she explains. Uncapher says she is amazed at the caliber of speakers who participate -- such as a state trooper to talk about safety, an instructor from the University of Delaware to discuss personal budgeting, and dynamic UniServ Directors from the Delaware State Education Association.
"These workshops have been so beneficial" she says. "And I think people are finally waking up and realizing just how important we are in the education equation." Iowa's Michele Carter, who works with disabled preschoolers, agrees. Even before Iowa passed a paraprofessional certification law in 2000 - which states that paraprofessionals can earn a voluntary state certification license -- Carter earned a five-year Special Needs paraprofessional certificate from the state at Kirkwood Community College.
Now, she explains, she has reached a professional high. Her classroom partner, special education teacher Emily Dolezal, "wants me to use what I have learned and is willing to take suggestions, which makes me comfortable and relaxed."
Thanks to her coursework, Carter also shares the same vocabulary with Dolezal. "I used to say, 'no, that's not for me.' Now I know what teachers are talking about, and if you understand, you can have input."
Allyson Story, President of the Cedar Rapids Organization of Teacher Associates (CROTA), agrees. For the last several years, Story has led the charge to successfully modify Cedar Rapids' salary schedule for paraprofessionals who earn Iowa's voluntary certification license.
"If a paraprofessional takes a professional development class and brings that experience to the classroom, he or she will likely stay on the job longer, and that better serves students," she explains. Proof positive is that to date, not one paraprofessional who has earned state certification has quit his or her job.
Louisiana paraeducator Iona Holloway, a former Senior NEA Executive Committee Member, believes now is a great time to be a paraprofessional.
"It's becoming a widely known fact: paraprofessionals are integral to successful schools," she says. "And with new requirements demanded by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now is the time to think about becoming highly qualified so that you can advance into teaching if that's what you want."
According to a recent NEA survey, nearly half of the nation's 650,000 K-12 paraprofessionals -- 49 percent -- say that's exactly what they want: training to become teachers.
Dr. Cathy Wooley-Brown, who developed Florida's Paraprofessionals as Teachers Program -- an innovative curriculum that provides alternative routes to teacher certification for support professionals -- says that today, "most school districts in America are developing comprehensive plans to provide professional development for paraprofessionals because they know they can't afford to lose these employees."
"Put simply, the paraprofessionals are the people who know the kids and the climate of the school," she adds. Not only do they already have hands-on classroom experience, but "paraeducators also offer ethnic diversity and a level of maturity that directly benefits school districts. And because they are already a part of the community and local schools, they are unlikely to move away or flee the teaching profession."
California's Kathy Crummey, president of the Hayward Education Association, believes finding teachers from within is a great way to build schools of the future. "Paraprofessionals have already shown their dedication in the classroom. They are established in the community and have a sense of history," she explains. "They understand basic classroom management, plus district policies and procedures. They are a valuable resource and can be a wonderful way to fill the teaching shortage."
More than ever, districts around the nation are developing teacher training programs specifically for their paraprofessionals.
For example, New Jersey's Trenton Paraprofessional Association (TPA) has bargained a new contract with the district that includes up to 12 tuition credits paid per year by the district if participating paraeducators choose to pursue other career opportunities within the district.
"There's a constant need to hire teachers in this urban district," explains Maureen Cronin, New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) UniServ Representative. "The board saw paras as a large resource. They represent a dedicated workforce already in place and living in the community that the district had not fully tapped."
Through the program, paraeducators with no college credits can take workshops and trainings offered through NJEA and outside sources. The contract also contains language on sabbatical leaves. Five paraprofessionals per year may receive sabbaticals for the purpose of pursuing an education degree. They keep their health benefits and half their salary and in return make a commitment to teach in the district for three years.
In Hayward, California, the Paraeducators Teacher Training Program has been providing college tuition assistance and support to paraeducators wishing to pursue a teaching career for three years. It is a collaborative venture by the Hayward Education Association, Hayward school district, Chabot Community College, California State University- Hayward, and other local associations.
Through state funding, and matching district funds, the program pays for paraeducators -- who must be employed at least half-time by the district -- to take classes toward a teaching credential.
Daphne Baxter, a paraeducator who works with emotionally disturbed students, is just one of many paraeducators taking advantage of the opportunity. "The program has been a godsend," says Baxter, who didn't have the money to go back to school on her own. "It has enabled me to go back to school now, instead of waiting five or six years."
Sandra Vasquez, a bilingual and special education resource paraeducator says it's not easy, but it's something she wants to do. Working 30 hours a week at Longwood Elementary School, taking 12 units at CSU-Hayward and being a single parent is a juggling act. "I have to prioritize," she explains. "After I help my daughters with their homework, then I have to do my homework."
And unlike some new teachers who don't realize how difficult the job is, Monica Ruiz, a paraeducator who works in a before- and after-school program, says the Teacher Training Program has helped prepare her for the reality of teaching.
"My confidence is high. I'm not afraid of being in the classroom or being with children," she explains. "Because of my work, I'm not intimidated about handling a class. Because I already have experience, I know exactly what I'm getting into."
Student achievement depends on rigorous standards and a knowledgeable education team -- including paraprofessionals.
Additionally, because paraeducators are such an integral part of their communities -- more than 75 percent live in the school districts where they work -- they play a very important role in the lives of the students they work with. More often than not, they go above and beyond their job descriptions to make schools better for their communities and the children.
New Jersey's Patricia Beaulieu, a teaching assistant at Green Township School, is one of them.
In addition to setting up an afterschool tutoring program in conjunction with the student council, she also helped establish an evening study group for seventh and eighth graders, and even prepared instructional materials for selected special needs students. On her own time, she completed specialized training on working with autistic students. And it's these new skills that enabled an autistic third grader to remain with his peers in a neighborhood school setting.
"She has been able to befriend even the most disaffected students and provide direction and guidance in the most caring manner imaginable," says teacher and former classroom partner Monica Kroger.
In Pennsylvania, Special Education Assistant Cecilia Pitcher, who works at Pocono Mountain High School, helps run a "Volunteers for Understanding" workshop that breaks down racial and cultural barriers and stereotypes.
This native of Ecuador has also put together a student Latino dance group that has performed on TV, in front of Girl Scouts, and even at an army depot.
In Coupeville, Washington, Deanna Schulz, a paraeducator and playground supervisor, started a school-wide mediation program that uses peer mediators to settle playground conflicts. Adapting a technique she learned during a training in conflict resolution, Schulz trained student mediators for 10 hours before and after school. Armed with clipboards and active listening skills, these young mediators now help their classmates find solutions to common playground clashes.
"They use language that gives complainants the power to choose, such as 'I see you guys are having a problem. Would you like us to help you with that?'"
But perhaps a story that Gwen Andrews, a veteran paraeducator in North Carolina, shares sums it up best.
She recalls how she and Sherry McDonald, her classroom partner at Konnoak Elementary in Forsyth County, once talked a special education student out of thinking he was stupid.
"We sat this child down and told him he had value and could be anything he wanted to be if he believed in himself," she says. After providing him personalized attention for much of the school year, the child started to thrive.
"By providing personal attention and helping build up students who come in with low self-esteem, I make a difference," she adds. "We all make a difference."
There is growing recognition that staff development for paraeducators can be key to increasing the success of the students they work with.
Here are some examples of topics for paraprofessional staff development: