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Paraeducators are part of the teaching team

When Janet Eberhardt was a young mother, she accepted the job as a paraprofessional in the San Francisco schools because the hours worked for her.

When her daughter was 5, she told her, “Mommy will get a real job when you’re older.” But she was still saying that when her daughter turned 10, then 14. Now 22 years have passed. She got drawn in, not because it was financially rewarding, but “because it’s my calling. I’m good at it. It’s my passion.”

A member of United Educators of San Francisco, Eberhardt is a community relations specialist/elementary adviser at Junipero Serra Elementary School. Her job entails being a troubleshooter who supports classroom teachers by addressing the various challenges students bring to school with them. It also involves being an advocate for the needs of children and families.

Even though she has a degree in business engineering and a master’s, has worked as a human resources recruiter, and even got her credential to teach, she prefers this job because it allows her to reach the whole child. “If you teach them to love and respect themselves, all other things fall into place.” She teaches students to become good managers of themselves and to make the right choices in life.

The move within CTA to accept ESP begins to validate people like her, says the State Council representative. “These are needed positions. We should treat them as positions of choice.”

While paras are invaluable to teachers, they are not properly valued when it comes to their salaries. Some believe this is because they are perceived as moms who like to work where their kids go to school and are happy to earn pocket money. All too often, that kind of thinking has been used as an excuse to underpay them.

Paras Martha Perez with Crystal Alvarado in Lake County (above), and Janet Eberhardt with fellow UESF members Ken Tray and Betty Robinson-Harris (below)
Another concern is the duties assigned to paras. Many are performing duties that do not fall under the category of “assisting” in instruction.

At Terrace Heights School in Lakeport (Lake County), “Miss Doreen” is surrounded by fourth- and fifth-graders in the Green Group. The special day class students in this group read at the first-grade level, but are making great progress. Students previously in this group have “moved up” to higher levels.

Hanging around the special education paraeducator’s neck is a dragonfly necklace given to her because it symbolizes that paras are “an extra pair of wings” for the teacher. She likes the comparison.

Doreen McGuire-Grigg, president of the Lakeport Classified Employees Association, is not just a helper or aide. “She’s like a co-teacher,” says teacher Glenda Pyzer, a Lakeport Teachers Association member. “Thanks to her, some of these kids have two years’ growth in a year’s time — which seldom happens otherwise. She does a great job and runs the room as much as I do.”

Like many paras, McGuire-Grigg is often asked why she doesn’t become a teacher. She has given it plenty of consideration.

“My calling is to be here and be ‘Miss Doreen,’” she explains. “And even though I’m not a certificated teacher, I’m still a teacher to these kids. Many people consider such a job to be a stepping stone to becoming a teacher, but I think we paras can be fulfilled just doing exactly what we’re doing.”

Nothing makes her madder than hearing her profession denigrated. Hearing a colleague describe herself as “just an aide,” she leaps in: “No, not just an aide. We are an integral part of the classroom. Without us, kids wouldn’t get half of the help, love and attention they need.”

While they may not always receive the recognition they deserve, paras play a crucial role. Working alongside teachers, they help students through small-group and one-on-one instruction. They work in special education classrooms and regular classrooms assisting mainstreamed students who are suffering from serious physical and mental disabilities. And they help “newcomers” who don’t speak a word of English feel at ease.

Under federal No Child Left Behind requirements, paraeducators working in Title I schools must now either hold an associate’s degree, complete two years of college (48 units), or pass a district test that demonstrates equivalent knowledge.

In Lakeport, the county office posted a tutorial online, allowed its 26 paras to meet in study groups and offered an off-the-shelf test. All are now considered to have met the requirement. In Redlands, the district developed the Paraprofessional Testing and Assessment Program (PTAP), a 10-week program taught by master teachers. While the district and the association believe the test meets the highly qualified standard, no one has ever verified that it does.

Sometimes paras are assigned to some of the most challenging students, which can lead to injuries on the job. Diane Johnson, who works with autistic students at Lowell High School in San Francisco, was hit in the face by a student who was hearing voices. Her glasses were broken. “I do love working with the kids,” says Johnson, a member of United Educators of San Francisco. “But it’s not easy.”

In the English language learners (ELL) classroom at Clear Lake High School, Martha Perez explains what a metaphor is to students who are struggling to read To Kill a Mockingbird. “Una comparación,” she explains.

Paraprofessional classroom aide Anne Schwenning serves as a co-president of the North Cow Creek Educators Association in Shasta County, which includes both certified and classified employees — all 37 of them
The school has a “17 percent and growing” number of ELL students, says Perez. She provides support in ELL and mainstream classes, translating instructions and answers for students, helping students put translations into “context” and providing strong emotional support for students in transition.

“My kids feel intimidated and think they’ll be mocked for responding in an incorrect way. But my presence encourages them. Sometimes they will tell me the answer first — in a whisper — to make sure it’s the right answer.”

Perez sees herself as a “surrogate parent.” She encourages students to complete schoolwork, offers advice when they come to her with personal and family problems, and urges them to “mingle” with mainstream students. She is also adviser for the Latino Club.

“My presence frees up teachers to stay on schedule with the material they need to cover. Because I’m there, teachers don’t need to slow down their classes. I can help the ELL students so a teacher doesn’t have to take time away from the majority of students. A lot of teachers say they couldn’t do it without me.”

After much consideration, Perez has enrolled in a program to become a teacher. “I’m a role model for my students. When they say they are too tired to do their homework, I tell them ‘I’m tired too, but I still do my homework.’ And they can say, ‘If she can do it, so can we.’”