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Other Duties as Assigned

Chronic Understaffing of Public Schools Spreads Education Support Professionals Thin

It happens every day, in schools and classrooms all over the country. A paraeducator (“para”) is working one-on-one with a student—working on reading skills, helping to complete an assignment or attending to a student with severe disabilities—when a call comes in from the office that the paraeducator is needed elsewhere.

The calls are all too familiar and increasing in frequency. The para is called to "cover" for a teacher who is meeting with parents or even serve as translator for a meeting between an administrator and a parent who doesn't speak English. Paras are also called to fill in for sick teachers in the middle of the school day, proctor a test and sometimes to even transport students with special needs to another location.

Paras are not the only educators who are subject to a range of assignments under “other duties as assigned.” Education support professionals (ESP) - custodians, food service professionals, technical services and clerical service workers also are often pulled from their regular work assignments for other duties by school administrators. But this reassigning comes with a cost.

"School districts and local administrators hire paraeducators for specific purposes such as providing individual student supports within general education classrooms or running small group instruction to facilitate mastery of students' knowledge and skills," said Marilyn Likins, executive director of the National Resource Center for Paraeducators (NRCP).

Unfortunately, budget cuts, teacher and substitute shortages and increasing numbers of English language learners, are among the reasons ESP are being pulled from their regular work responsibilities to cover duties that should be assigned to full-time, permanent staff.

A Para's Struggle: School or Student?

Mary Ann Rivera is a special education classroom paraeducator in Western Springs, Ill. As a paraeducator, every day is different for her. “I focus on helping students to be organized, engaged during discussions and work on assignments,” Rivera said. “We do a lot and it is constantly changing to meet the needs of the students we work with.”

Rivera is fluent in Spanish, and her school takes advantage of that, even though she is not a licensed translator. Her school district does have a community liaison, who is supposed to do this work, but his workload is heavy. Rivera is regularly scheduled or pulled from class, break time and even union time to translate for IEP meetings or phone calls to parents.

“It’s a difficult situation to be in because I know there is a need for translation services and no funds to hire more community liaisons,” Rivera said, “but it impacts my students when we are working one-on-one and I have to stop in order to help translate. Students with special needs demand and deserve our full attention."

Pennsbury, PA paraeducator Marla Lipkin understands the struggle between wanting to support the school, but underscores that a paraeducator's professional duties must be a priority. "Whatever duty that para is asked to do cannot be more important than her duties in regards to her students," Lipkin said. “Paras are often conflicted between what is right for their students and the task assigned by a supervisor. As professionals, our specified skill set must be respected and protected because often we’re helping our schools’ most vulnerable students.”

More Duties, More Compensation

The number of English language learners is increasing in many schools, while the number of educators assigned to work with these students is decreasing. Some unions are negotiating extra pay for ESP who have additional responsibilities, such as translating or covering classes for teachers.

Tricia DiPasquale is a special needs paraeducator and member of the Somerville (Mass.) Teachers Association (STA) bargaining team for paraeducators. "Some administrators believe we are providing a valuable service during the work day for which we are already compensated," said DiPasquale. "We know that we have many responsibilities, but how would they feel if they were depended on by an employer to do work that is far outside their job descriptions, without any type of additional compensation?"

DiPasquale said STA has bargained for contract language stating that administrators must try to identify other translation resources before pulling a paraeducator who is working with students. “But with the shortage of funds, paraeducators are still often relied on for these services.” according to DiPasquale, “We need districts to understand that chronic understaffing impacts students and paras.”

In one Chicago suburban district, paraeducators, food service and even an administrative assistant are now classified under the broad title of road heading of ‘teacher assistant’. Although some teaching assistants have been asked to voluntarily transport students, in some programs of the cooperative, the teaching assistants are now required to obtain a bus driving license and are required to transport students to and from school and to specialized programs during their school day. But according to local union president Jenn Lattimore, "they are not compensated for bus driving responsibilities during the school day because administration considers the work 'extra duties as assigned.'"

Jean Fay is a paraeducator in Massachusetts and feels that school districts often lean on paraeducators when shrinking budgets result in decreased staffing levels. For example, substitute educator pay has not kept up with inflation, meaning there are fewer available substitutes.

“School secretaries have the difficult task of trying to find coverage for the increasing number of meetings classroom teachers are required to attend, as well as identifying and assigning substitutes for staff who are on medical leave,” Fay said. "The reassignment of paras usually results in students losing much needed support. The classroom teacher is left to act as teacher and paraeducator. All the students in the class lose as a result of this horrible domino effect."

“Substitutes go through a rigorous qualification schedule and are expected to be degreed and competitive,” says Jeanette Kimber, a substitute teacher coordinator at Meadowcreek High School and Georgia Association of Educators’ ESP of the Year. “Investing in qualified substitute teachers is a must if schools are to avoid disrupting the student learning process for all students,” said Kimber. “Students should not miss a beat in their learning experiences.”

Fay sees ESP as some of the strongest advocates for the students they support every day. “I will never stop advocating for my students, whether it’s for increased funding for public education, or reminding school administrators of our responsibility to adequately support the students we work with,” Fay vowed. 

Paras Need Support Too

The lack of qualified staff isn't the only worry that special education paraeducator Colleen Mutcher has with respect to student care. "Another concern I have is the lack of training," said Mutcher, who is the Utah School Employees Association 2016 State ESP of the Year. “The district does not provide any training for paraeducators. We work during the hours that the students are attending school and this does not allow the teacher or para time for training or collaborating. Our district is having difficulty retaining and hiring paras as many quit or choose not to return the following year.”

Likins asserts that this is no anomaly. She said paraeducators often are not provided the continuing education and professional development needed in today's changing public school environment. "To improve paraeducators' performance and enhance student outcomes, districts and schools must invest in paraeducator supports and professional development, but fail to provide the same level of training for other key members of the instructional team. Rather than recognizing the value of the paraeducator's role, they expect them to learn on the job and frequently pull paraeducators to fill gaps in staffing, which can disrupt critical student services," she said.

NEA has included NRCP as a collaborator to develop the NEA Paraeducator Institute (PI), a dynamic, paraeducator-driven resource that aims to elevate paraeducator careers through policy, professional development and resources. The PI online portal is now available and offers paraeducators, teachers and administrators a place to connect with each other, as well as access and share resources to improve paraeducator practice. “We must foster the development of paraeducators' relationships and services to students within their instructional teams. Most assuredly, improved student outcomes will follow," concluded Likins.

Despite the mounting challenges, paraeducators continue to be dedicated to students and positive about their work. Paras understand that their work is imperative to meeting the needs of the whole student - making sure each student is healthy, safe, engaged, challenged and supported.

As Haverhill, Mass. special needs paraeducator Nancy Burke said, "We do whatever is needed!" She and paraeducator Deb Tilly find prom gowns and suits, clean pants, find winter coats, mend students’ clothing, fix wheelchairs, wash/fold laundry (Haverhill High School’s special education program has a washer and dryer), staff special student events, write grant proposals and more. “The list is long, but whatever it is, education support professionals just do it for their students,” Burke declared. “We love what we do every day!”

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