New Rules for Teacher Aides
School workers who help the neediest students are frustrated, angry and insulted by new demands that force them to prove they are qualified to do their jobs.
Either they take a test -- or earn college credit -- or they lose their low-paying jobs.
"Now, all of a sudden, we're not qualified. It's kind of put us in an awkward position," said Beth Marple, a paraprofessional, or classroom assistant, at Hunter Elementary School in the Gibraltar School District.
The years they've spent assisting teachers, or working with small groups of students who need extra help, won't matter anymore.
Nor will the fact that they've taken on increasingly demanding responsibilities while earning an average $6-$8 an hour.
By 2006, if they haven't passed a test, earned a 2-year degree or taken two years of college classes, they'll lose their jobs.
"I'm 48. The last time I really took a test, Nixon was in office," said Elaine Boria, who has logged six years in Huron Valley Schools.
It's part of rules now required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the law President George W. Bush signed in January 2002 that has brought sweeping accountability changes to public schools in America.
Locally, the school workers use adjectives such as "insulted" and "disappointed" to describe their feelings about the rules.
And those who represent their interests say the workers should get something in return.
"We hope at some point that with these additional requirements, we'll see additional compensation and additional respect for our paraprofessionals," said Margaret Trimer-Hartley, spokeswoman for the Michigan Education Association, a statewide union that represents school employees.
Because now, Trimer-Hartley said, a paraprofessional could get a job at McDonald's, earn the same salary, but not face the same requirements.
Boria, who assists in a first-grade classroom and helps students who don't speak English, said the new rules aren't a bad idea.
"We need to know these people are intelligent enough to be teaching these subjects to these kids. It's a fair request," said Boria, who works at Apollo Elementary School in Highland.
The new rules, which also apply to anyone hired after January, have broad implications. While they apply only to those who work in so-called Title 1 programs -- which primarily assist low-income students -- many believe districts will eventually require the same standards of all paraprofessionals.
As the role of paraprofessionals has changed over the years, so have efforts to require more of them, or provide training to help them meet the expanding needs of children.
Years ago, the job was mostly clerical.
"The days of us cutting out paper and doing bulletin boards are long gone," said Shannon Force, a paraprofessional at Fountain Elementary School in Roseville.
Nowadays, they work side-by-side with teachers, sometimes tending to the needs of struggling students or pulling small groups aside for extra help.
Some have specialized jobs, working with students who don't speak English, with those who have special education needs or in technology programs.
There are now programs to certify them.
One of the largest in Michigan is run by Oakland Schools, the county's intermediate school district, where 1,924 people have enrolled to earn a certificate since it began in 1996. Some have come from as far away as Canada, said Gale Gross, staff development consultant at Oakland Schools.
Now, though, paraprofessionals who opt to be tested can choose from two options: A basic skills test that all college students who want to enter a teaching program must take, or an ACT WorkKeys test, which has been used for years in the workplace to assess employee skills.
It's too soon to judge how those who've already taken the tests are doing, said Sharon Stockero, a consultant with the Michigan Department of Education. The tests can be retaken an unlimited number of times until 2006.
PUT TO THE TEST: Requirements for teachers' assistants to change
Detroit Free Press
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