Impact Feature Issue on Volunteerism by Persons with Developmental Disabilities
Meeting Student Needs Through Paraprofessional Training in Rural Idaho
In 1996, a parent of a child with a disability wrote a letter to the superintendent of schools stating that she was willing to allow a paraprofessional to work with her son if the paraprofessional was supervised by a teacher and provided with training to meet her son’s needs. This letter prompted the administration of Preston School District in Preston, Idaho, to organize a three-day training for paraprofessionals. This training has now been in place for the past six years.This article describes the history of the Preston School District’s professional development training program for paraprofessionals. It includes a condensed description of our training development timeline, a list of yearly activities, topics of training, methods and strategies, how training has improved the quality of education, and lessons learned.
The following items are key events in our six years of training paraprofessionals and development of our training program. These events have produced paraprofessionals who are highly skilled members of our education team:
- Year One.We purchased the Enhancing the Skills of Paraeducators program from the Utah State University Department of Special Education and Rehabilitation. This video-supported curriculum was delivered over three days by Preston School District special education staff. This was the first time all paraprofessionals in the district were brought together to formally address their instructional needs, and paraprofessionals indicated that they were pleased that school administrators were interested enough in them to provide the training.
- Year Two.The Enhancing the Skills of Paraeducators curriculum was repeated with newly hired paraprofessionals. For the first time, paraprofessionals were invited to attend the teacher-focused Quality Education Conference at Idaho State University. Previously, only certificated staff had been invited. Later in the year, paraprofessionals received training in a structured reading program.
- Year Three.For the first time, with their supervisory teacher, special education paraprofessionals were invited to attend special education team meetings and IEP meetings for students with whom they worked. Monies were allocated to send paraprofessionals to the Utah Paraeducator Conference. Now paraprofessionals attend this conference on a yearly basis. We organized a training program for teacher and paraprofessional teams with personnel from Utah State University. Teachers and paraprofessionals attended 12 training sessions. Instructional teams learned to clarify individual roles and responsibilities and practiced using formative evaluations to improve instructional performance. They also learned and demonstrated effective problem solving and communication strategies. At the close of the year, a policy requiring paraprofessionals to attend all professional development activities was adopted.
- Year Four.A paraprofessional committee was established to receive input on training topics and coordinate all matters associated with paraprofessionals. The committee was composed of a regular education teacher, special education teacher, special education paraprofessional, Title-1 paraprofessional, and the Director of Special Education. Before the end of the year, the committee proposed changes that would directly benefit paraprofessionals and our instructional program. Paraprofessionals also received training to deliver direct instruction reading programs. Later, professional staff and paraprofessionals worked together to train other paraprofessionals. Training sessions on various topics were held one time per month, and continue today.
- Year Five.Special education teachers were required to submit their paraprofessionals’ job descriptions to the Director of Special Education and evaluate the paraprofessionals’ performance. Paraprofessionals and professional staff participated in three days of reading training from nationally recognized reading consultants from Utah State University. District administrators considered the need for a competency and compensation level system for paraprofessionals. They also acknowledged the difference in training needs for resource, Title 1 paraprofessionals, and paraprofessionals serving students with more severe disabilities. Individualized training for each group began to be offered.
- Year Six.Paraprofessionals participated in a live videoconference with school districts from across the United States. Anna Lou Pickett, past director of the National Resource Center for Paraprofessionals, spoke to paraprofessionals about their changing role, recent legislation affecting paraprofessionals, and the roles and responsibilities of teachers. Consultants from the Jordan School District in Salt Lake City, Utah, provided reading instruction on phonemic awareness, letter recognition and pre-reading skills.
Paraprofessional Training and Our Quality of Education
Our paraprofessionals’ instructional skills have grown by participating in our professional development program. With enhanced skills, they have met students’ educational needs with a variety of instructional programs, delivered in one-on-one or in small groups. Our professional development program has also helped paraprofessionals identify powerful variables affecting student achievement and the importance of data as a tool to measure instructional outcomes and guide instructional interventions.Idaho has a reading initiative called the Idaho Reading Indicator (IRI). Paraprofessionals, under the direction of professional staff, administer all testing, which involves individually administering a curriculum-based 10-minute reading assessment three times per year. Teachers and paraprofessionals use this data to design remedial reading interventions for students scoring below grade level. Paraprofessionals deliver the remedial reading interventions in small groups. Without paraprofessionals, our reading groups would be so large that individual needs would not be met.The IRI intervention is just one example of many, where paraprofessionals have woven themselves into the fabric of our instructional program. Under the direction and supervision of certified professionals, paraprofessionals also assist with delivery of accelerated math, the extended school year for students on IEPs, summer reading and math programs, occupational and physical therapy services, gifted and talented programs, technology instruction, educational signing for the deaf, and a variety of other programs. Without paraprofessionals, these services would either be diminished or unavailable.
Lessons Learned Along the Way
Six years of training has taught us many lessons that have enhanced our training program, including:
- Paraprofessionals’ enthusiasm for training is enhanced when they participate in the identification, planning, and delivery of training.
- Training must be immediately applicable to the requirements of a paraprofessional’s job.
- Paraprofessionals must be assigned to tasks for which they have been trained. They feel more confident and enthusiastic when they have received specific training for an assigned task.
- When appropriately trained and supervised, teachers, parents, and administrators recognize paraprofessionals as an invaluable member of the instructional team.
- When appropriately trained and supervised, paraprofessionals display the same professional behavior as certified staff.
- Like teachers, paraprofessionals require ongoing professional development.
- Teachers require training to effectively supervise paraprofessionals.
Today, students’ educational needs exceed district financial resources for hiring professional staff. Paraprofessionals, when appropriately trained and supervised, have met many student needs at a fraction of the cost. Appropriate training and supervision are essential. This requires additional expenditures, but the cost is recaptured as schools multiply the amount and quality of services.
Morgan, R. L., Forbush, D., & Avis, D. (2001). Enhancing skills of paraeducators: A video-assisted training program (2nd edition). Logan, UT: Department of Special Education and Rehabilitation.