Program Profile

Impact Feature Issue on Volunteerism by Persons with Developmental Disabilities

Meaningful Staff Development: The Eastern Suffolk BOCES Model


Joan E. Skelly is Director of the Department of Educational Support Services, Eastern Suffolk Board of Cooperative Educational Services, Holbrook, New York.

There was a time in the not too distant past that the sight of two adults in a typical classroom meant one of three things: there was a student teacher completing the required field experience, the teacher was being observed by an administrator, or a class parent was serving the cupcakes at a class party. How times have changed! Today, for a number of very good reasons, not the least of which is the education of students with physical, cognitive, and emotional challenges alongside their non-disabled peers, educational programs are moving from a solo act to an ensemble. The cast in any particular setting is as varied as the needs of the students being served. Other teachers, related service providers, medical personnel, and paraeducators often join classroom teachers. And although the roles of each may vary slightly in different settings, it is the paraeducator whose duties tend to reflect the greatest diversity overall. Is it any wonder, then, that the paraeducator who envisions her job as supporting academic instruction is confused and disillusioned when she finds her major job responsibilities include toileting and tube feeding? Or that the paraeducator who signs on for what he believes to be primarily medical support functions feels overwhelmed when he finds himself supporting the instructional program in a chemistry class?

Often, the frustrations lead to resignations, leaving a gaping hole in the instructional support team that is not easily filled because the lack of paraeducator substitutes is the order of the day. The lack of appropriate support in any program cannot help but have negative effects on student outcomes and staff morale. It is essential, then, to develop and implement mechanisms to improve recruitment practices as well as provide continuous support to new and veteran employees.

This all brings me to the obvious conclusion: we need meaningful staff development. Administrators, especially building principals, tend to harbor a love-hate feeling toward staff development. Overall, principals value and support opportunities for their instructional team to improve or reinforce skills that translate to positive student outcomes. But, they dread the disruption to the instructional program when staff members are not present during school hours and few if any substitutes are available.

At Eastern Suffolk BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) on Long Island, New York, years of planning, implementation, evaluation and revision have yielded a training/mentoring program that attempts to address the challenges of recruitment, retention, and focused and meaningful staff development for paraeducators. The program provides orientation for new paraeducators and substitutes, program specific training for veteran staff, and a job embedded mentoring model for ongoing in-house support for all paraeducators.

The content of our training program is competency-based material developed by the National Resource Center for Paraprofessionals (NRCP). This material is well-designed to meet the needs of paraeducators working in special education and vocational settings, and can be easily adapted to general education settings.

The preservice and substitute training is typically offered during the summer months and several times during the school year. During this half-day workshop, participants are provided with a broad overview of the structure and function of BOCES as well as insight into our students and programs. When new employees reach their assigned buildings, the mentoring system provides both initial and ongoing support as the employee transitions into the new job. In addition, in many of our buildings, a “meet and greet” orientation is provided to per diem substitutes to help them meet the demands of the assignment for the day.

Recognizing the need to minimize pulling employees from their schools during the school day, three core courses form the basis of training for all BOCES paraeducators: the roles and duties of paraeducators, legal and ethical responsibilities, and communication and problem solving. These foundation courses are considered important enough to be presented during the school day at regular intervals during the year. After- school workshops and seminars are also offered and include more specialized topics. Paraeducators choose to attend these workshops based upon their current assignments and/or their job-related goals or special interests. A monetary incentive is offered for each 15 hours of staff development completed. And, again, the school-based mentoring system offers continual support for paraeducators.

Our paraeducator and teacher mentors serve a vital and pivotal role in our staff development process. In addition to providing in-house mentoring support, they serve as instructors for our core courses. They also serve as liaisons to the school and central administration, and communicate information relevant to the training and support of paraeducators at the local, state, and national levels.

To perform these diverse duties effectively, the mentors, both teachers and paraeducators, meet regularly for continued training, to address problems, and to share successes. These opportunities for learning and dialog support the mentors in carrying out their responsibilities to new and veteran staff and per diem substitutes.

A focused and systematic training and mentoring model allows us to address the needs of both rookies and experienced staff. Offering this support through release time trainings, after- school workshops, and through a job- embedded mentoring system helps to ensure that we reach all of our paraeducators. By providing appropriate training and staff development, we hope to strengthen our instructional teams, improve student outcomes, and enhance recruitment and retention efforts to maintain and enhance the skills of our current and future paraeducator staff.