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LAUSD Aides Face Deadline

Ohanian Comment: People should take a look at why the Feds are making this law that hurts paraprofessionals--and children. In the end, it will also hurt teachers.



Time is running out for 7,000 Los Angeles Unified School District employees who must pass proficiency exams or earn college credit in the next year to keep their jobs.

Federal law requires teacher aides, special education assistants, library clerks and other "paraprofessionals" to meet more stringent standards by Jan. 6, 2006.

Those who don't could be reassigned under federal No Child Left Behind Act regulations.

"It's terrible," said Seda Keshishian, a special education assistant at Burton Elementary in Panorama City who has failed a testing requirement twice. "It's going to jeopardize my life. It's depressing."

The 54-year-old native of Iran said she loves her job but isn't good at taking tests. She is among hundreds of LAUSD employees struggling to meet the new requirements.

No Child Left Behind, the sweeping education legislation Congress passed in 2001, requires teachers as well as the LAUSD's roughly 18,000 paraprofessionals to prove they are "highly qualified."

Starting in 2002, paraprofessionals had to show proof of a high school diploma. Now, teachers' aides and assistants must prove that they either have two years of college or passed two district skills tests -- one that focuses on instructional knowledge and another that tests reading and math skills.

"They're dribbling in," said LAUSD Personnel Director Anita Ford, referring to the paperwork of the 11,000 employees who have already shown they meet the higher standards.

To reach the rest, the district launched an aggressive campaign, including mailing information to workers and offering classes to help them prepare for the tests.

Many of these aides are among the most dedicated and lowest-paid employees in the LAUSD, their supporters say.

An educational aide earns about $10.90 an hour. A special education assistant can earn about $15 an hour, but for not more than 25 hours a week, typically.

"It's a sensitive situation," Ford said. "We're trying, No. 1, to comply with the law, but we're also trying to be as compassionate of an employer as we can be."

Some employees are just struggling to find the paperwork that proves they finished high school or two years of college. Some earned their diplomas in other countries half a century ago.

But Ford is confident that most employees will be able to meet the requirements by next January.

"The majority of them will comply. A lot of them are just people who haven't gotten around to do this."

Those who don't meet the requirements can be shifted to cafeteria work or clerical positions. Some workers, such as special education aides who mainly provide physical assistance to students, could be given different job titles -- re-categorized -- to indicate they aren't paraprofessionals, she said.

LAUSD school board member Jon Lauritzen, a former teacher, said he supports the tougher standards. The testing areas -- English, math and classroom management -- are needed areas of expertise. He hopes it will encourage aides to become full-fledged teachers.

"I think it's a positive approach," he said. "I think it's a good way to promote people into the teacher field."

Kilani Hutchinson, 52, agreed that the skills are necessary. She recently started as a special education assistant in Toluca Lake after spending years entering data in an office.

"I need to be useful and effective in the classroom," said Hutchinson, whose bachelor's degree puts her in compliance with the new requirements.

Others, such as library clerk Katherine Black, aren't sure the skills are needed in their positions, which aren't in the classroom.

Black, who declined to give her age but said she could have retired 20 years ago, hopes the tougher standards don't scare off qualified people.

"I love my job," said Black, who works at Apperson Street School in Sunland. "I do it because it keeps me active. It helps me getting up in the morning and doing something interesting."

Jennifer Radcliffe, (818) 713-3722 jennifer.radcliffe@dailynews.com

— Jennifer Radcliffe
Los Angeles Daily News


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