Impact Feature Issue on Volunteerism by Persons with Developmental Disabilities
Improving Paraeducator Supports Through Schoolwide Action Planning in Vermont
Over a period of many years Swanton Elementary School, in rural northwestern Vermont, has developed a well-earned reputation for being an inclusive school. It’s a place where classroom teachers, special educators, paraeducators, administrators, parents, and students work together to create a welcoming and supportive learning community that strives to meet the needs of students with a wide variety of characteristics. Part of what makes Swanton Elementary successful is leadership that encourages critical self-reflection and continual improvement. So it wasn’t surprising that when an opportunity arose for Swanton Elementary to examine their paraeducator supports with a critical eye toward self-improvement, they embraced the challenge.A mini-grant from the Center on Disability and Community Inclusion, University of Vermont, provided Swanton Elementary, along with over 40 other schools nationally, with the opportunity to field testA Guide to Schoolwide Planning for Paraeducator Supports . This workbook offered a 10-step process to guide the school’s work. The steps included the following:
- Inform your local school board of your intention to establish a team, or use an existing team, to address paraeducator issues.
- Ensure that the team includes the appropriate members of the school and local community.
- Have the team assess their own status and fact-find in relation to the six paraeducator topics: Acknowledging Paraeducators; Orienting and Training Paraeducators; Hiring and Assigning Paraeducators; Paraeducator Interactions with Students and Staff; Roles and Responsibilities of Paraeducators and Others; and Supervision and Evaluation of Paraeducator Services.
- Prioritize and select topics and specific issues that reflect areas of need within the school that the team will work on first.
- Update your local school board on the team’s ranked priorities.
- Design a plan to address the team’s ranked priorities.
- Identify local, regional, and statewide resources to assist in achieving team plans.
- Implement the team’s plans.
- Evaluate the plan’s impact and plan next steps.
- Report impact and needs to your local school community.
During the 2000-01 school year Swanton Elementary formed a Paraeducator Planning Team that included paraeducators, special educators, general education teachers, speech-language pathologists, a school board member, and the assistant principal. They followed the guide’s steps to self-assess their paraeducator practices, identify priorities, and develop a plan to improve their paraeducator supports. Throughout the remainder of the school year, and into 2001-2002, they implemented the plan and began to evaluate its impact. Their plan of action, based on self-selected priorities, included these five components:
- Development and distribution of a paraeducator handbook.
- Establishment of a new set of meeting structures: (a) bi-monthly meetings of the full paraeducator staff, (b) monthly meetings between special educators and paraeducators, and (c) paraeducator “team leaders” to coincide with the school’s organization into grade level teams.
- Training of paraeducators using the course materials, Supporting Students with Challenging Behaviors: A Paraeducator Curriculum (Backus & CichoskiKelly (2001).
- Organization of a teacher-guided initial file review process at the outset of the school year to familiarize paraeducators with students’ characteristics, goals, supports, and accommodations.
- Creation of a professional development bulletin board along with an application process for paraeducators to apply for workshops and course attendance.
After putting their plans into action for the better part of a school year, the Paraeducator Planning Team surveyed and interviewed members of the school community in an effort to answer the following question: In what ways are students with disabilities better off because of the paraeducator supports we have implemented through our paraeducator action planning? It is always difficult to directly attribute changes in student outcomes to the actions taken as a result of planning efforts, such as in this case the school’s participation in paraeducator action planning. Yet there was a general consensus within the school community that the new supports they had put in place as a result of their paraeducator action planning were being utilized, were perceived as “helpful in impacting student learning,” and had a “strong effect” that contributed to overall school improvement. For example, paraeducators reported that the new handbook helped clarify job responsibilities and establish shared expectations, offered a common language, and provided consistent guidelines. As one paraeducator commented, “If I understand my job and responsibilities, I can better work with students.” The initial file review process was seen as beneficial in helping the paraeducators know more about the students. As another paraeducator shared, “Last year I did not have access to IEPs. This year I am clearer on who the students are and what their goals are.” As a result of the course taught by the school psychologist on supporting students with challenging behaviors, one paraeducator noted, “The impression of those paraprofessionals who supervise the playground indicates that the playground has become a more orderly and safe environment for students.”Classroom teachers and special educators commented on some of the other innovations. As a special educator stated, “The monthly meetings have been positive. They give the paraeducators a chance to ask questions… they learn about the ‘why’ of what they are being asked to do.” Another mentioned, “Paraprofessionals are getting the awareness of the smaller steps that are needed to break skills down so children can access the learning.” A speech-language pathologist commented, “There is a sense that we [teaching faculty] are ‘reachable’. I’ve had an increase in [paraeducators] asking me questions.”The assistant principal reported that although the innovations they put in place were generally perceived positively, there was still work to be done so that they are used more consistently and incrementally improved. For example, some paraeducators reported that “there was not adequate time to review all the student files” and that “some teachers did not use the time for file review.” This paraeducator feedback highlights aspects of the school’s action plan that can be improved. In a summary report about the school’s participation in this project, the assistant principal wrote the following comment: “Those who did do a file review felt that the information was helpful, but some suggested that we need to follow-up [later in the year] once the paraeducators are have been working with the students and have gotten to know them better. There should be time for the paraeducators and the teachers to review progress and see what the new goals are [for the next part of the year].” In the same report the assistant principal wrote, “… we have seen a positive impact on the school climate, atmosphere of cooperation and collaboration, empowerment of paraprofessionals, and overall communication as a result of our efforts to improve support for paraprofessionals. While we cannot assume that these changes have had or will have a direct impact on student behavior and achievement, we are confident that our efforts are having a positive effect on our school. We are committed to continuing the process begun through this project.”Swanton Elementary is continuing on its path of self-reflection and incremental improvement, striving to make a good school even better.
Note: Partial support for the preparation of this article was provided by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services under the funding category, Model Demonstration Projects for Children and Youth with Disabilities, CFDA 84.324M (H324M980229), awarded to the Center on Disability and Community Inclusion at the University of Vermont. The contents reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the U.S. Department of Education, and no official endorsement should be inferred.
Michael F. Giangreco is Research Professor with the Center on Disability and Community Inclusion, University of Vermont, Burlington; he may be reached at 802/656-1144 firstname.lastname@example.org. Julie Benay is Assistant Principal and Mary Smith is a Paraeducator with Swanton Elementary School, Swanton, Vermont. Mary Beth Doyle is Associate Professor with St. Michael’s College, Colchester, Vermont.
Backus, L., & Chichoski-Kelly, E. (2001). Supporting students with challenging behaviors: A paraeducator curriculum. Burlington, VT: Center on Disability and Community Inclusion, University of Vermont.
Giangreco, M. F., Edelman, S. W., & Broer, S. M. (2001). Guide to schoolwide planning for paraeducator supports. Burlington, VT: Center on Disability and Community Inclusion, University of Vermont.