Maryland Paraeducator Named NEA 2013 ESP of Year

For Donna Schulze, the gala at the 2013 NEA Education Support Professionals (ESP) Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, turned out to be the night of a lifetime. One for the books.

The Friday night dinner and dance always kicks off the two-day series of seminars, speeches, and pre-conference workshops. While this is Schulze’s eleventh ESP conference, it is the one she’ll remember most.

As the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA) ESP of the Year, Schulze and 29 other state ESPs of the year (not every state sends a representative) were invited to the podium by NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. First, they lined up alphabetically by state. Stage left. Single file.

2013 ESP of the Year Donna Schulze

They then took a turn introducing themselves to the audience of approximately 800 ESPs and others from across the country. After returning to their official state reserved tables, they sat back down and waited and fidgeted like everyone else for what is easily the most anticipated moment of this annual conference: the naming of the recipient of NEA’s highest honor for a school support staff member.

For Schulze, a paraeducator at Phelps Luck Elementary School in Columbia, being named the 2013 NEA ESP of the Year meant receiving two standing ovations and thunderous applause that nearly shook the roof off the ballroom at the Marriott Downtown Hotel. She was greeted on the dais by a long round of hugs and congratulations from members of the NEA executive committee. Van Roekel then presented Schulze with a shining glass trophy award, bouquet of red roses, and a $10,000 check.

“You know, we’ve (ESPs) been fighting for so long, and we’ve come far. And we are still moving,” said Schulze, a member of the Howard County Education Association (HCEA), one of the largest merged teacher-ESP locals in the nation.

In his introduction, Van Roekel praised Schulze for her 23 years of service as a paraeducator and for serving from 2005-2011 as vice president of HCEA, which has more than 5,000 members and a four to one ratio of teachers to ESPs. Schulze went on to acknowledge the hard work in getting the Maryland State Teachers Association (MSTA) to change their name, which had existed for 140 years before “education” replaced “teachers” in 2009.

“When I first heard of the Maryland State Teachers Association, I said, ‘where am I in this,’” added Schulze, to yet another round of applause. “I asked the [Association] president what I could do and he said submit a bylaw. Now we are the Maryland State Education Association. We can change things.”

In his written nomination of Schulze for the award, HCEA President Paul Lemle said Schulze initiated the bylaw amendment for the name change in 2003.

“No other single event demonstrates the impact Donna Schulze has had on the Association,” Lemle stated.

Betty Weller, MSEA president, said she admires most “the dedication and passion Donna has for her students and her job. She also works tirelessly to move Association initiatives forward.”

Weller and Schulze have worked together on projects for about 10 years. Weller says she spoke to Schulze last week when she visited Phelps during Read Across America Day.

“As we walked through the halls, students kept calling her name and speaking to her,” said Weller. “It seemed to me that she was a very important person in their lives.”

Schulze has taken on a variety of Association duties since joining HCEA 15 years ago. She has served as a building representative, lobbyist, committee member (organizing, negotiations, membership, social activities) and been a delegate to the NEA Representative Assembly. In particular, she was the lead member of the HCEA team which worked for eight years to secure passage of legislation in 2007 giving HCEA the right to bargain agency fees for non-members.

As ESP of the Year, Schulze will promote the values and concerns of NEA’s approximately 484,000 ESP members. In this capacity, she will travel to national, state and regional conferences in an ambassadorial role. Schulze is also invited to deliver a keynote speech to almost 9,000 NEA delegates during the Representative Assembly.

“I might tell Donna to speak from the heart and deliver a message from which her colleagues might take away energy, positive feelings, and ideas,” says Weller.

This year’s conference theme is “ESP: It’s More Than a Job. It’s a Career!” The conference is designed to help ESPs gain the skills they need to organize stronger locals, build strong internal and external relationships, and enhance their ability to influence student achievement. More than four out of 10 public school employees are school support staff, who NEA categorizes into nine K-12 job groups, plus one for higher education. The ESP of the Year award was approved by the NEA Representative Assembly in 1991. The first award was presented in 1992.