In the Functional Skills class at Century Elementary School in Bear River City, Utah, paraeducator Paulette Lyons diligently reads to a fourth grader with Down syndrome.
“Miss Paulette, I’m working hard,” he says.
“You’re doing so well,” she responds, “keep going.”
Earlier in the day, Lyons accompanied a fifth-grade student with aggressive behavioral tendencies to a math class with his peers.
“He can’t stay focused on math and needs someone like me to help him” says Lyons, a member of the Utah School Employees Association (USEA), NEA’s only all-ESP (education support professionals) statewide direct affiliate.
There are five paraeducators and about a dozen special needs students on any given day assigned to this special skills class.
“Watching them grow and learn is very rewarding,” says Jan Dallin, a paraeducator and USEA member who taught pre-school for 12 years.
Being versatile as well as knowledgeable and skilled are workplace necessities for Dallin, Lyons and their colleagues. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the share of paraeducators holding an associate’s degree more than doubled from 1996 to 2012. Today, there are approximately 318,000 paraeducators with two-year degrees. Many more have earned advanced degrees as well.
The dramatic transformation of paraeducators has occurred over the past 15 or so years and can be traced in part to the increase in class size nationwide, influx of children of immigrants for whom English is a second language, and federal legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) and the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, which forced school district officials to ensure that all students receive an adequate education.
“IDEA recognized paraeducators as more than just backup personnel working on the periphery of the classroom,” says Marilyn Likins, director of the National Resource Center for Paraeducators (NRCP), based at Utah State University in Logan. “It acknowledged the key instructional role they play in their work with students with special needs including those with autism and deaf-blind disabilities.”
NCLB also mandated that paraeducators have at least two years of college, an associate’s degree, or complete a state or local exam that evaluates the participant’s math, reading or writing abilities.
“Paraeducators definitely impact student achievement when they are trained in their job roles and responsibilities and receive appropriate supervision from their teacher,” says Likins. “When teacher and paraeducators teams are trained together on particular curriculum or instructional strategies students can make impressive academic gains.”
Back in the functional skills class, Lyons is working with three students: “Okay, we’re going to write a sentence.”
Later, Lyons and Dallin are leading several students in an animated rendition of the Itsy Bitsy Spider, all while a kindergartener who is autistic darts across the room two and three times in his bare feet, a paraeducator in tow. In an opposite corner of the room, another paraeducator patiently reviews pronunciation letter cards one “Safe hands, safe hands, thank you,” she says.
Some kids have “explosive behavior problems,” says Lindsey Holmes, the Functional Skills teacher.
“It might take two paraeducators two hours to calm down one of these kids,” she says. “And they’ll know just how to do it properly and safely. They get bit, scratched and punched and they still smile.”
Over time, paraeducators have become trusted partners to teachers, significant instructors to students, and reliable communication sources for parents and administrators. According to the census, K – 12 paraeducators increased from approximately 500,000 in 1990 to 780,000 in 2001. The latest figures from 2012 show 830,000 paraeducators in the workforce today. Those working full-time increased from 61 percent in 1990 to 75 percent in 2012.
Like paralegals and paramedics who work alongside legal and medical teams, paraeducators collaborate with teachers.
“There’s no way … no way I could manage this classroom without them,” Holmes says. “We all contribute to student learning, and they have a lot of great ideas and insights to share.”
As collaborators with teachers and administrators, paraeducators have become a significant force in helping students succeed in and out of the classroom:
- Academically: through one-on-one and small-group instruction, particularly with students who have learning disabilities, language barriers, or other special needs.
- Behaviorally: helping students learn impulse control techniques for their hands during instruction periods, through anti-bullying intervention,
- Socially: helping students with communications skills, encouraging students to meet other students and participate in playground activities.
- Physically: helping students in wheelchairs to eat, dress, use the lavatory, and move from being seated to standing, helping disabled students on and off the bus, administering medical procedures (when properly trained).
“You can see the progress in students that they (paraeducators) work with,” Holmes says. “Maybe not over the day but certainly month to month.”
Of NEA’s almost 3 million members, almost a half million are ESPs. Divided into nine job categories, paraeducators are the largest sub-group with almost 250,000 members. This fall, NEA began building a National Paraeducator Institute (NPI) to provide professional development, resources, and policy guidance.
“Frequently, paraeducator issues get lost at the national level unless there is a concerted effort to keep the topic of paraeducators at the table,” says Likins. “The NEA NPI has great potential to do just that.”
Rather than the voice of a single organization, Likins says the NPI is “an opportunity to work inclusively and collaboratively across all key stakeholders on paraeducator issues to inform and facilitate national discussion as well as promote legislative action.”
The value of paraeducators is not generally reflected in their paychecks. According to the most recent census, paraeducators working full-time earn $21,346 while part-timers bring in $9,965. One of the methods that school districts use to lower their operating costs is to keep the work hours of paraeducators below the area’s full-time status level.
“They would rather hire two part-timers instead of one full-time person so they don’t have to pay benefits,” says Chris Marchbanks, the USEA UniServ director for the Box Elder School District where Century is located.
After a 2012 NEA study of ESPs, a key finding indicated that they care deeply about their impact on student success and about being valued members of the education community. To help USEA elevate ESP careers, increase organizational capacity, and better serve students, NEA established USEA as a 2014 Lighthouse Project. The multi-year project includes transforming USEA into an educator-led, student-centered organization with its own USEA professional development academy, which will be developed in partnership with NRCP and other organizations. The academy aims to train and support paraeducators and other ESPs in their careers.
“We aim to build strong, member-led local Associations focused on supporting student success and serving members’ on-the-job needs,” says USEA President Jerad Reay.