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Pressure on paraeducators

Special education students and ELLs lead districts to ramp up training of aides
Donna Schulze, above, is a paraeducator at Phelps Luck School in the Howard County Public Schools in Maryland.
Donna Schulze, above, is a paraeducator at Phelps Luck School in the Howard County Public Schools in Maryland.

Paraeducators are no longer on the periphery of the classroom. Now a significant part of the learning process, they are facilitating one-on-one and small-group instruction among special needs students.

They increasingly have been tasked with doing so over the past 15 years to ensure that such students receive adequate academic attention and that schools meet their needs as defined by federal legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act and No Child Left Behind. More recently, paraeducators are helping to ensure that students with special needs keep pace with the Common Core State Standards.

As a result of this broadening of their requirements—and stress levels—paraeducators and their advocates say they need more varied training, increased support from administrators in developing effective working relationships with teachers, and better pay.

Donna Schulze, a paraeducator at Phelps Luck Elementary School in the Howard County Public Schools in Maryland, says that paraeducators have to know how to handle special education students’ needs. “We do lunch and recess [duty] because teachers don’t anymore,” she adds. “You have to know what child is allergic to what, and know who is going to blow up if they eat peanut butter.”

Based on U.S. Census data, the National Education Association found the number of paraeducators rose from about 780,000 in 2001 to about 830,000 today, says Roxanne Dove, director of education support professionals for NEA. And the greater numbers of bilingual students and increased class size have demanded more classroom help, Dove says.

And a recent study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that teacher’s aides increased from nearly 2 percent of the 3.4 million staff members in public schools in 1970 to nearly 12 percent of the 6.2 million staff collectively employed in 2010.

Collaboration and training

Marilyn Likins, director of the National Resource Center for Paraeducators, says teachers and paraeducators need to work together in different ways, with paraeducators taking lesson plans that teachers develop and homing in on specific students to help them meet their goals.

Compensation for paraeducators

Paraeducators and their advocates say their compensation has not kept pace with their ever-expanding duties.

According to U.S. Census data, full-time paraeducators made $21,346 on average in 2013, while part-timers averaged $9,965, says Roxanne Dove, director of education support professionals for NEA, which represents about 250,000 paraeducators. That’s up from $12,406 and $5,950 in 1993.

With more than 20 years of experience, Donna Schulze, a paraeducator at Phelps Luck Elementary School in the Howard County Public Schools in Maryland, receives a stipend of an additional $500 per year and makes less than $40,000 annually.

Superintendent Renee Foose says Howard County has increased teacher salaries 41 percent in the past five years and paraprofessionals’ salaries between 3 percent and 9 percent in the past year.

“We’ve kept pace with making sure we’re investing in our people,” she says.

Districts have been cutting paraeducators’ hours and professional development in response to tighter budgets, says Marilyn Likins, director of the National Resource Center for Paraeducators.

“Paras that were working full-time were cut to part-time and now aren’t even part-time; they’re under 20 hours,” she says, meaning they don’t get benefits. “They cut budgets with no concern about services for students. Cutting paras is probably one of the easiest budget cuts for districts to make because they don’t typically have strong unions.”

“Teachers need training on how to supervise [paraeducators], how to collaborate, how to engage paraeducators effectively,” Likins says. “The administrators’ role is to understand all that and know how to support teacher-para teams, how to provide planning time and how to build better communication.”

The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act was the first step in recognizing paraeducators as more than just backup personnel in working one-on-one with autistic and special needs students, Likins says. And NCLB mandated that paraeducators either pursue an associate’s degree or establish themselves as “highly qualified,” Schulze says.

While there is no one typical day-in-the-life of a paraeducator, they likely need training on working with students who have special needs ranging from autism to deafness and blindness. But Likins says most of the PD in special education targets administrators and teachers.

A sophisticated coaching model needs to be in place to adequately support all stakeholders, Likins says. An administrator should review with the paraeducator their caseload of special needs students; observe a teaching session; collect performance data tied to that session; and provide constructive feedback.

A teacher can simultaneously “work with [the paraeducator] so you’re both sharing small group instruction, and then have them do it and give feedback,” Likins adds. “But that’s time-consuming, and people’s schedules often don’t allow it.”

While NCLB created a “teach to the test” environment, Common Core has begun to shift the roles of paraeducators—and teachers—in a different direction, says Doreen McGuire-Grigg, a special education paraeducator for Lakeport USD in California. With Common Core, there is no teaching to the test, and that makes lessons less scripted and more interdisciplinary, says McGuire-Grigg, a 28-year veteran.

But paraeducators need more training on Common Core, McGuire-Grigg says. “We’re trying to find out what our place is in that,” she says. “It’s difficult because as the curriculum changes direction, we just kind of follow along and do whatever we’re asked to do. A lot of us are still in the dark.”

By the Numbers

The numbers of paraeducators rose from about 500,000 in 1990 to

780,000 by 2001.

Today there are about 830,000

Source: U.S. Census

In addition to school district in-service training, PD can be provided through universities and other institutions of higher learning, educational service districts, business organizations, private vendors and teachers’ unions.

The NEA this past summer launched the National Paraeducator Institute to provide training on the Common Core and other important topics, Dove says. It covered online networking and learning opportunities, new and/or revised policyand-practices resources, and training and PD opportunities.

In Howard County Public Schools in Maryland, “there’s not much of a differentiation” in the level of training given to teachers and paraeducators, says Superintendent Renee Foose. Paraeducators receive training on sexual harassment, bullying, working with “difficult students,” conducting parent conferences, and using technology.

Schulze says Howard County only recently has begun including paraeducators in PD days. PD time has included subjects such as building a collaborative relationship with teachers and how to dissuade bullying.

In North Kingstown School Department in Rhode Island, paraeducators have been trained on how to work with the behavior of students on the autism spectrum, covering verbal techniques for de-escalating conflict when students start physically acting out, says Sandie Blankenship, a special education paraeducator.

“It’s recognizing what’s going on [and saying to an upset student], ‘Why don’t you take a walk with me for five minutes,’ ” she says. “It has helped to intervene before it gets to an escalated place. It’s not restraint—it’s more about knowing what to do safely for the student, so that they’re safe and others are safe.”

Each situation and each student is different, Blankenship notes, and paraeducators must know what works. “You have to know the students you’re working with,” she says. “In most cases, it’s something as simple as [saying], ‘Do you need a break?’ ”

By the Numbers

Paraeducators have an average age of 46

Stay on the job for 11 years

Source: NEA

Phil Auger, superintendent in the North Kingstown district, says he and his administrative team realized that they needed to focus on that staff now as much as the teachers during PD sessions. For example, one recent session focused on the Common Core and understanding expectations at each grade level and understanding the methodologies that teachers are using to teach it.

Superintendents also need to negotiate with their unions to find mutually acceptable solutions on issues like training and pay for paraeducators, Foose says.

“We have to have a working environment where it’s not us and them,” she says. “When you have this many schools, this many employees, there’s going to be variability [in working relationships]. How do we monitor that? That’s why we offer as much professional development as we do.”

Developing IEPs

While paraprofessionals increasingly have been expected to work with special education students, they’re not always around the table when individualized education plans (IEPs) are hashed out. “In many situations they probably should be,” Likins says. “But there’s not money to pay for their time to be there. It’s a shame because paraeducators are the ones working very consistently with the student.”

McGuire-Grigg, who also serves as NEA district director in northern California, says paraeducators should be directly involved with the IEP conference. For example, she says, she talks with the teachers before the conference.

And Janet Pace, behavioral interventionist in special education for the Davis School District in Farmington, Utah, says full-time teaching assistants in her district sometimes sit in on IEP conferences, although part-timers mostly don’t. But it’s usually paraeducators who can best describe how well students are performing certain tasks and explain any data they’ve collected, she says.

“They’re the ones who are working with the student—always coordinating with the teachers, of course,” Pace adds. “It’s sometimes behavioral [data] and sometimes academic. They can say how [an intervention is] working, if it’s working, and what they can do better."

Ed Finkel is a freelance writer in Evanston, Ill.