A provision that would have improved access to training and career advancement for some of the state’s lowest-paid workers in the classroom, many employed to help high-need students, appears to have lost out this year due to cost and budgetary concerns.
Kelly McQueeney, a paraprofessional in the Avon school district, said she had to learn a variety of skills for her job helping students with different needs, including sign language, the use of alternative communication devices and certain types of walkers.
Soccorro Testut, a paraprofessional in Norwich, said that some of the most valuable training was how to translate and how to teach bilingual students.
Paraprofessionals who spoke to CT Examiner said that development opportunities, including the chance to learn the jargon used in special education plans, would better prepare them to do their jobs, and give them a way to move upward in their careers. And not having this professional development, they warned, would have a negative effect on students. In the case of McQueeney, and many other paraprofessionals, at least some of those students have special needs.
“The more training we get, the more diversified the training is … the more universal it is across the state,” McQueeney told CT Examiner, the more students will have the necessary support.
In Connecticut schools, paraeducators act as assistants to teachers, helping address student needs under a teacher’s direct supervision. Unlike with a teacher, paraeducators are required to have a degree in education or any type of certification — the only requirement is a high school diploma and at least two years of higher education.
And these standards are reflected in the job’s relatively modest pay in most districts. Last year, in Madison, a starting salary for a paraprofessional was $12.79 per hour; in New London, it was $15.35 per hour, in Fairfield $15.93 per hour, and in Darien between $25.45 and $32.41 per hour, depending on the paraeducator’s duties.
A trimming bills, limiting costs
This legislative session the Paraeducator Advisory Council, which was created by the legislature in 2008 and consists of representatives from each of the unions representing paraprofessionals, supported legislation that would have required local school districts to offer a minimum of 18 hours of professional development for paraeducators focused on best practices for teaching students and improving student performance.
That provision for training was stripped from the bill in the legislature’s budget committee, leaving paraprofessional training to individual school districts.
McQueeney, who works at Roaring Brook Elementary School in Avon and serves as president of the local paraprofessionals union, said that her district does provide some professional development to their paraeducators — about six days per school year.
In contrast, Hyclis Williams, a paraeducator at Reginald Mayo Early Learning Center in New Haven, said her district was seriously lacking in opportunities for paraprofessionals to receive training.
Williams, who is also the head of the local paraprofessionals union representing 420 paraeducators, said that in a district like New Haven, paraprofessionals actually help orient teachers on how to control student behavior, especially if the teacher is not used to working with a diverse population or doesn’t understand the “culture” in the district.
“If you come to New Haven and you [have] never dealt with a diverse group of students and you come into a classroom, you have no clue what you’re going to do when a child says something or does something,” she said. “The para is the one who’s going to manage that and actually be teaching you or orientating you about this whole process of how these children operate and what you need to do in order to get behavior under control.”
Both Williams and Soccorro Testut, a paraprofessional at Kelly Junior High in Norwich, said that part of the challenge of becoming a paraeducator was learning the jargon that is used in educational settings, particularly regarding children who have learning difficulties or medical conditions.
“Learning the [vocabulary] that is required to even read the IEP and understand it is something that definitely the [professional development] days could help us with,” said Testut, who has been a paraprofessional for nine years. “Also, the medical. So if you have a child that has a social-emotional disturbance, it’s good for us to know – what does that mean? What does that entail on a day-to-day basis for that child?”
Testut said she also received training on how to properly restrain students, which she said made it possible for her to restrain the students without injuring herself or them.
Williams said that she would have liked to see professional development available that would give paraeducators the opportunity to become teachers or social workers if they so choose. She said that the low pay for paraeducators prevents them from seeking out that additional education themselves.
“We are already doing the work and now all you have to do is give us the education so we can get the certification to do the job,” she said.
State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, chair of the legislature’s budget committee, told CT Examiner that the decision to remove a portion of the bill was purely financial. Osten said it was one of many bills that were trimmed of provisions requiring funding, given the limited dollars available in the governor’s budget.
Osten said that the legislature did not yet have an estimate of what the paraeducator bill would have cost, but she said that the Office of Fiscal Analysis — the agency responsible for calculating the cost of proposed bills — told the appropriations committee that the bill would either require the state to provide funding to the towns in the form of a grant or it would be a “substantial” cost to the individual towns.
The bill in its current form does allow paraeducators access to information about a child’s special education plan and makes them a part of planning and placement team (PPT) meetings to discuss the child’s special education services — a provision that the paraeducators described as a “no-brainer.”
Williams said that having that insight lets paraprofessionals know which behaviors are acceptable for a child and the best ways to avoid behavioral problems. It also allows them to share information with other members of the child’s special education team.
But the current bill also eliminates another proposal made by the Paraeducator Advisory Council — the formation of a group to study the creation of a formal certification for paraeducators. Williams said such a certification would have given paraprofessionals who wanted to further their education an advantage, so they did not have to retake courses they had already received training for.
For McQueeney, the advantage was more about giving paraprofessionals a level of credentialing that other members of a special education team – like occupational therapists, speech therapists and registered behavior technicians – are already required to have. She said she has heard the role of paraeducator being referred to as a “mom’s job.”
“This is a career for people. I know paras that have been doing this for 20 years, 30 years. This is not a mom’s job,” she said. “Paras do this job because they have a passion for helping students with special needs. And this is what this is really about — is giving us the adequate training and the recognition through certification.”