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Mesa now cheers teacher's aide law

Ohanian Comment: A country that valued its children would pay people who work with them more than $7-$8 an hour.

If you want more info on the ETS Para-Pro exam mentioned in this article, enter 'paraprofessional' in the search feature on the homepage.

by JJ Hensley

When federal lawmakers passed a law requiring that teacher's aides be better educated, it was greeted like many aspects of President Bush's No Child Left Behind Legislation: as an unwarranted and underfunded federal mandate mucking up the work teachers do in their classrooms.

Three years later, with the deadline approaching for aides to have associate's degrees or pass an accreditation test, administrators in Mesa applaud the plan.

The requirement has produced a better-educated work force to help students in schools with a high percentage of low-income learners, and gives aides an opportunity to pursue higher education with the district's tuition reimbursement program.

"I think it was kind of a blessing to have some rules that said you need to be accountable, you want the high-quality people to work in the classrooms," said Mesa's Title I director, Greg Smolkovich. "We want those paraprofessionals who have the skills and can assist the teachers with those low-income students."

Title I schools are those with a high percentage of low-income students, and fall under the No Child Left Behind legislation.

In Mesa, 31 of the 57 schools qualify.

But even with the success of the program, the district isn't out of the woods.

More than 30 Mesa schools still need aides this semester, to do jobs that include playground monitoring and assisting teachers in the classroom while they work with at-risk students.

But Smolkovich said it's essentially the same crisis the district faces every year, with or without the additional educational requirement.

Out of the about 250 teacher aides the district has at its Title I schools, about 50 need to be replaced each year, he said. The only difference is, now, most of those new aides have associate's degrees.

But hiring for $7 to $8 an hour remains a challenge, he said.

"It depends on what the economy's like," Smolkovich said about the number of applicants each year.

The new requirements ultimately made life easier for Jennifer Griffin.

Griffin was an aide when the new conditions came on the books. She was facing the prospect of looking for another job that paid more when she got the chance to pursue a college degree through the district's tuition reimbursement program.

Three years later, Griffin has almost completed her associate's degree at Mesa Community College, while working full time for the district, and is preparing to continue her education.

"I know it has been a frustration for some, but I've also seen how its enabled a lot of people who have not had the opportunity to go back to college to have the opportunity to do that," Griffin said.

"For me, it means I can go on and become a certificated teacher, and that's a goal. I think it's been beneficial overall."

The process to become an aide is relatively simple.

Prospects start the process at their school of choice and go on to meet with the principal and basic skills teacher for an interview.

If both parties are comfortable with each other, the prospective aides can take a test.

Aides that score at least 70 percent on that test can take the Para-Pro test at the district office, and if they successfully pass that test, they're certified, with or without an associate's degree. Though the test meets the No Child Left Behind requirements, aides still can take college courses via the district's reimbursement program.

Despite those incentives, it's still hard to find qualified people to do the work, which is typically part time, said Jill Bonewell, the district's director of classified staff.

"It's difficult," Bonewell said, but working with children and teachers naturally appeals to some residents. "We've got our retirees who like it because its part time and the moms who work so they can be at their child's school . . . Just the nature of it being part-time attracts a certain demographic."

— JJ Hensley
Arizona Republic


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