Impact Feature Issue on Volunteerism by Persons with Developmental Disabilities
Paraeducators to Educators: A School-University Partnership in California
A unique school-university relationship began in 1992 when an administrator from the ABC Unified School District (ABCUSD) contacted the Occupational Studies Department at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) and asked for help in preparing district paraeducators to work with students and teachers. “Paraeducator” describes school employees who provide instructional and other direct services to children, youth, and/or their parents or other caregivers, and who are supervised by certificated, licensed professionals (Pickett, 1989). Though they often work with some of the most challenging students, paraeducators generally receive little or no training to do their jobs. Recognizing this, ABC Unified wanted to improve the skills and knowledge base of their paraeducators, and a training course was developed for them utilizing materials from the National Resource Center for Paraprofessionals in Education and Related Services (NRC). Many partners participated in the initial planning of the course, including paraeducators, school district administrators, union representatives from the California School Employees Association (CSEA), and University faculty. The first course took place in 1994 and continues to be offered annually.
A neighboring school district, Bellflower Unified, learned of the program and asked for a course in their district. As their initial class ended, the two districts, which were both were experiencing teacher shortages, asked if the University could set up a program to train their paraeducators to become teachers. Since their paraeducators were familiar with the school systems, knew the daily stresses involved, lived in the community, had similar cultural backgrounds to their students, and had demonstrated their ability to work with children, district personnel felt that they would be excellent candidates for a teacher preparation program.
It was decided that a system was needed to provide coursework leading to baccalaureate degrees for paraeducators who wanted to go on to be teachers, particularly in Special Education. Many had not attended college other than the paraeducator training course, but successfully worked in classrooms daily and knew they wanted to teach. The University responded to the districts’ need for teachers by writing and receiving a federal training grant from the U.S. Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) in 1998.
Four major objectives guide the program. First, the training group is diversified through the recruitment of paraeducators from underrepresented populations, including paraeducators with disabilities, paraeducators who are members of an ethnic or racial minority group, and paraeducators who reside within high poverty areas. Second, much of the training program is conducted at school district sites, affording the opportunity for paraeducators to stay close to their worksites and communities. Third, recognizing the diversity of the paraeducators and their individual needs, support is provided to assure their ability to remain in the training program to its completion. Lastly, the partnership between the school districts, local community college, and the University is being expanded and refined, involving personnel from each agency.
An advisory board, whose members include paraeducators, school district administrators, University personnel, a CSEA union representative, and a specialist from a Regional Occupational Program, guided the beginning of the program. The entire process involved a blending of personnel from the agencies working together, and strong bonds of collaboration were developed. Forty-five paraeducators were selected to participate over the three-year period, in cohorts of 15 per year, with completion of the Paraeducator Training Course as a prerequisite for application. Sixty percent (27) of the 45 paraeducators are members of underrepresented populations, and 71% (32) live within school district boundaries. Four of the participants are male, and 41 are female.
Each paraeducator coming into the program was required to sign an agreement to teach students with high-incidence disabilities (mild to moderate mental retardation, speech or language impairments, emotional disturbance, or specific learning disability) in a regular or special education setting for a period of two years for every year that they receive funding through the program.
Financial support covers three years of college tuition, two summer sessions, and a stipend of $250 per semester or summer session for books, supplies, or other education related expenses. Courses are held, as often as possible, at school sites within the districts in the early evening hours, and the school districts provide childcare for the courses at their particular sites.
In addition to academic advisement and support provided by University faculty and staff, meetings with the Project Director, and assistance with enrollment, registration, and the often challenging paperwork associated with University attendance, a District Advocate was chosen from each district to provide on-site guidance. They meet regularly with the paraeducators to disseminate information, provide encouragement, and answer district-related questions.
Many of the paraeducators continue community college attendance to complete lower division requirements in addition to the courses provided through the program. They find this to be a cost- effective way to save their University tuition for upper division classes while working toward their degrees. The District Advocates provide a strong communication link with the community colleges, and interact on the paraeducators’ behalf.
As each cohort progresses into courses and becomes more comfortable with their role as students, they are encouraged to begin taking on-campus classes in addition to those offered in their districts. The experience of being on a college campus with 33,000 students can be overwhelming at first, and participants usually take classes together, carpool, and form study groups.
Trainee Support Services
Providing the needed support for the paraeducators has been a strength in the delivery of this program. The participants all work in their school districts, many are the first member of their family to attend college, and most are parents of school-age children. Customized advising is held both within the school districts to accommodate the paraeducators’ schedules, as well as on campus at the University. The District Advocates provide school district support and are accessible for individual guidance in addition to their regularly scheduled meetings. When several of the paraeducators were experiencing difficulty with college level writing assignments, one of the District Advocates, a high school English teacher, was hired to teach writing seminars on Saturday mornings. The paraeducators receive units of credit for attending, and repeat the course each semester, if needed.
The childcare component of the project has been helpful to participants with young children. A trained child care provider employed by the school district is available during class time for courses held at school district sites. Besides assisting with the cost of childcare, this service saves time for the paraeducators, who do not have to take their children to another location between work and class times. It also brings the children into closer contact with their parents as students – they see mom or dad going to class and often meet their instructors.
The districts have also been supportive in recognizing the paraeducators at school board meetings and other district functions, and by including news of the project in district newsletters.
For those paraeducators who are not able to finish all of their degree course-work during their time of participation in the program, financial aid information and counseling are provided.
This grant-funded partnership has proven to be a mutually responsive, highly satisfying, and productive venture. Of the original 45 paraeducators, 13 have completed their baccalaureate degrees and 28 are still taking courses. Five are currently teaching, one has completed a Master’s degree, one is enrolled in a Master’s degree program, and six are in credential programs. Four students dropped out of the program: one moved out of state, one needed to improve basic academic skills, one went to work full-time outside the school district to support her family, and sadly, one passed away (the support of her family by the other paraeducators has been phenomenal). By the time the funding for the grant ends, we anticipate having thirty-five graduates and six who will be continuing to work on their degrees.
Encouraged by the success of the original project, a second OSERS grant was written to provide tuition and support to 60 paraeducators from the neighboring Long Beach Unified School District. Funded in 2001, this project is similar to the first, and the second group of 15 paraeducators will begin classes in the fall (see the sidebar for the paraeducators’ view of this project). We are now developing a math support component which will be available to paraeducators from both grant programs, as they have expressed a need in this area in addition to the writing assistance. We are so pleased with the progress of the paraeducators in both programs, and hope to continue to prepare them to become teachers in local school districts.
Pickett, A. L. (1989). Restructuring the schools: The role of paraprofessionals. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Policy Research, National Governors’ Association.