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Uncertified Aides Left Behind by ‘No Child’

LAKE STATION – Betty Covelli has been teaching children how to read since 1973.

Her crisp, clear Australian diction draws kids into books at Polk Elementary, a small Lake Station school that receives federal poverty funding to assist children with reading and literacy. Although teachers praise Covelli and Principal Linda Halas has given her strong evaluations, the veteran teacher aide will likely leave the classroom next year.

She’s a casualty of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, which requires teacher aides or paraprofessionals such as Covelli to pass a standardized assessment or have a two-year degree by 2006.

“I’ll be sad to lose her,” Halas says of Covelli. “I’d say she’s exemplary.”

More than 2,000 Indiana teacher aides are affected by the 2002 federal law. So far, 58 percent of the aides in Lake County and 54 percent in Porter County have met the requirement. Statewide, 73 percent are in compliance.

Many schools, such as the Porter County Interlocal, are offering training for their teacher aides, who are among the lowest-paid employees. Jan Rees, assistant director, said 45 have now passed the exam and more are taking the exam soon.

“We’re moving along. We’ve had some paras leave. We have a lot of turnover. There are no benefits, and it’s low pay.”

Despite the job’s financial drawbacks, Betty Covelli has embraced it for 31 years. A great-grandmother who turned 80 last month, Covelli is considering taking the 2 1/2 -hour exam called the ParaPro Assessment. It consists of 90 multiple-choice questions in the areas of reading, math and writing.

But more likely, she’ll heed her sons’ and grandchildren’s pleas and retire.

She offers harsh words about the federal law that’s forcing her to leave the school she considers her family.

“I’m still as capable today as I was 30 years ago. You not only have to have the knowledge, you have to have the heart. If you don’t have feelings, you can’t reach these children.”

The No Child Left Behind law’s obsession with student testing has attracted most of the headlines.

One of the law’s provisions requires instructional aides who work with children in high-poverty areas to be highly qualified. By definition, that means passing the exam or getting a degree.

U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman Carolyn Snowbarger said its intent was to ensure that people who work with the nation’s neediest students were competent and qualified.

Snowbarger said the exam isn’t that difficult, and she expects most paraprofessionals will pass it.

But many who work in the low-paying jobs see it as one more burden they must endure.

Covelli and other teacher aides spend 30 minutes a day in kindergarten, first-, second-, and third-grade classrooms. On this day, Covelli’s students are reading about a king cobra.

“What do you think this story might be about,” she prompts the kids gathered around her. “Don’t just answer. Raise your hand.”

Third-grade teacher Fay Forsythe designates assignments for Covelli based on her students’ weaknesses.

“Some people would do exactly what you put down, but if she sees a teaching opportunity, she takes advantage of it. She enhances whatever you have with her knowledge.”

Forsythe says she thinks the No Child Left Behind law is unfair.

“She’s got years of experience, and it’s like we’re pushing someone out,” she says of Covelli.

Betty Covelli came to the U.S. in 1950 from Newcastle, Australia, after she married Ross Covelli. She met him during World War II when he was stationed there with the Navy and she was a nurse.

“Education was always very important in Australia,” she says. “It’s a very literate country.”

She brought that attitude with her when she settled in Lake Station and raised three sons while her husband worked as a millwright in a steel mill.

In 1972, she met JoAnn “Dolly” Gilmore at a Little League game. Gilmore encouraged her to apply for a job at Polk, which had just begun receiving federal funding for its reading program. Now, Gilmore and Covelli work side by side at Polk. Gilmore says she’ll probably retire, too, instead of taking the exam. She’s been there 35 years.

During her four decades at Polk, Covelli has survived five principals and a student teacher named Dan DeHaven, who’s now Lake Station’s superintendent. For now, she tries not to think about next year. She moves from classroom to classroom, pushing a cart of books and delivering lessons to children.

“This is my other home. This is my other family,” she says.

— Carole Carlson
Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette


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