While paraeducators cope with a new federal mandate intended to ensure they’re qualified, a kindred group stands in the background worrying. Many teachers say their classrooms and their work would be seriously compromised should they lose the services of those assistants.
Susan Solomon, a kindergarten teacher at San Francisco’s John Swett Alternative Elementary School, tells just that story.
“This past year, I’ve had the great good fortune to have an aide for most of the day. It really makes it possible for me to teach the way I teach,” she said.
Two years ago, when a paraeducator was in her classroom for far fewer hours a week, Ms. Solomon could seldom work with small groups of children. But now, on most days, she tailors reading lessons to groups of just five pupils. They have her undivided attention because aide Maria Meza is circulating among the other children, offering extra help to the group with the most complex assignment or simply encouraging a student.
Equally significant, the bilingual para- educator often serves as the link between the school and the families of the class’ six pupils learning English. “The parents will talk to her about things they might with me—but I don’t speak enough Spanish,” the teacher said.
‘Backbone of the School’
The influence of paraeducators extends beyond single classrooms, Ms. Solomon contended. “There are paras who have been here 27 years,” she said, “and they know the families. They are really a part of the backbone of the school.”
When the Swett school realized it had some extra money coming, the governing council consisting of teachers, parents, a member of the support staff, and the principal used it for supplies and an aide.
The No Child Left Behind Act’s requirements for paraeducators “are on everybody’s mind—paras first of course, but also teachers,” said Ms. Solomon, the secretary of United Educators of San Francisco, an American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association affiliate. “What a lot of us would like to see,” she said, “is some kind of evaluation procedure and not just a written test” to meet the federal standard. But a test is much more likely, Ms. Solomon said.
The 60,000-student district has not yet set the rules for its paraeducators, and the state has said the requirements are up to the districts.
Meanwhile, Ms. Meza, who is completing 15 years with the district, does not have the college credits that would make her qualified under the law.
So Ms. Solomon fears that down the line, Ms. Meza or someone of equal talent will be lost to the teachers and to the students.
A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2004 edition of Education Week as Teachers Fret Over Potential Loss of Aides