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Teachers' Aides Face Tough Tests

BROCKTON -- As night fell on Brockton High School recently, the lights continued to burn in a second-floor classroom, where instructor Linda Jordan walked 23 students through the basics of writing: paragraph development, strong verbs, and vivid adjectives.

These were not high schoolers seeking to boost MCAS scores or fine-tune college application essays. Rather, they were teachers' aides like 37-year-old Lisa Durant, an Avon mother who works in a third-grade classroom in the school her daughter attends. By 2006, Durant and many of the other 900,000-plus teachers' aides across the country will have to meet rigorous new national standards as part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Along with improving student test scores and stiffening teacher credentials, a little-noticed provision of the act also requires school paraprofessionals to boost their qualifications or lose their jobs. They must earn an associate's degree or higher or pass a test assessing basic skills or complete two years of relevant coursework at an institution of higher education or in approved programs at the district level.

"The more I can learn about coming up with strategies to help [students], the better it is for them and me," Durant said.

After years of toiling in the shadows of classroom teachers, so-called paras are facing scrutiny under the far-reaching federal law, which requires them to prove they are qualified for the increasingly complex roles they are playing. Gone are the days when paraprofessionals stuck to such tasks as stapling papers or leading children to the restroom: With the influx of special-education students into regular-education classes and stiffer demands on schools overall, many paraprofessionals are now directly involved in children's learning.

"This is forcing school districts to pay attention to all people who provide instruction for kids," said Kathleen Skinner, director of professional development at the Massachusetts Teachers Association. The group is holding courses like the one Durant attends.

Most of the paraprofessionals are women and mothers, and many have only a high school diploma. As many as 75 percent of the 10,000 paraprofessionals represented by the MTA do not meet the requirements of the law.

"In essence, what you have is the neediest kids getting services from the least capable person. Not that the para is not capable of being capable, but it's rather that the districts have ignored them," Skinner said.

The No Child Left Behind Act attempts to reverse that. Just as it requires the nation's teachers to be "highly qualified," the law sets new guidelines for aides who work in schools that receive federal Title I money for low-income children or who work in Title I-financed programs. (The rules do not apply to aides without teaching duties, such as lunchroom monitors.)

Right now, most paraprofessionals need only a high school diploma or GED, though some school districts have stricter requirements. Some towns are working with local community colleges and state colleges, hoping many will go on to earn a teaching certificate.

But the path to boosting the credentials of all teacher aides will not be easy, and school officials expect that many aides will retire. The state's cities probably have the largest numbers of paraprofessionals who wouldn't currently qualify, Skinner said.

Some veteran aides grumble about No Child Left Behind, wondering how they could have kept their jobs for years if they were not highly qualified. And others wish the courses were more linked to daily work, for example, learning sign language.

But now and then, light bulbs go off. Linda Woo, a library aide at the Brookfield Elementary School in Brockton, learned in Jordan's class how to distinguish students' grade levels by the words they read and write, down to the number of syllables. "I can't tell you how exciting that was," Woo, 54, said.

Many paraprofessionals applaud the new focus on them, but wonder about the practical side: Who will pay for the college courses they need or for the $40 test that is one avenue to becoming "highly qualified"?

And will their more stringent credentials translate into higher salaries? Nationally, teachers aides make an average of about $15,350, compared with teachers' average salary of $45,930.

"There should be requirements," said Carol Belmont, who has worked for five years as a special-education paraprofessional at the Richard J. Murphy Elementary School in Dorchester. "But if they expect us to meet these requirements, they need to match that with the pay scale going up."

Belmont, 54, illustrates the modern-day paraprofessional, straddling two worlds as she moves from teaching reading to helping her students use the restroom. She entered the field inspired by time spent caring for her 28-year-old disabled nephew, and she works in special-education teacher Karen Henneberry's room of six children, ages 5 to 9, with disabilities that include cerebral palsy and spina bifida.

Given the children's cognitive and physical limitations, patience is more than a virtue for Belmont; it is a job requirement. One year, for example, a little Haitian boy spent the whole year in class and learned how to trace his name only three days before summer vacation.

Henneberry is the lead teacher, but she and Belmont split many duties. One recent morning, Belmont took three students, ages 5, 6, and 8, aside to read.

"Where is the front of the book?" Belmont asked. Six-year-old Keily Soriano pointed it out. "You got it today! Yay!"

Belmont continued: "Where is the back? Good. Where is the top? Where is the bottom?"

The children seemed stumped, so Belmont tried a different tactic: "If this is the top, where is the bottom? Minh knows. Yes, she has a boo-boo," she said, as 8-year-old Minh Tran gestured to the small picture book, then to a bright green bandage on 5-year-old Victoria Franklin's wrist.

At lunch, the children waited for Belmont to bring their food on a giant tray. She squeezed mustard out of a packet and sliced hot dogs and peaches into bite-size servings.

Belmont relishes the teaching aspects of her job, and views the requirements under No Child Left Behind as a tool to do better and perhaps have her own classroom some day. "I see all that Karen has to do, and I don't envy her," Belmont said. "And yet there are times when . . . I have to fill her role, and I enjoy that."

— Anand Vaishnav
Teachers' aides face tough tests
Boston Herald and Boston Globe


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