Spotlight: Ensuring Special Education Students' Success

IB ImageWendy Steiner (right) is a special education inclusion paraeducator at Jefferson Elementary School in her home town of New Britain. She has served in this role for the last 10 of her 21 years as a "para" in the district, and says "it's the best job I've ever had."
 
Steiner discovered her talent and love for public education after a year of volunteering in her daughter's Kindergarten class. The teacher told her about an open para position in the district and not only suggested she should apply, but also wrote her a letter of recommendation.
 
"It's not an easy job," says Steiner, a member of our AFT Connecticut-affiliated New Britain Federation of Paraprofessionals. "Somedays it's stressful. But I just keep that smile on my face, knowing that I'm helping these kids; that’s what it's all about," she added.
 
Click here for the district's 2012 recognition of paras that honored Steiner's service.
 
As part of the school's special education, or "SpEd," team, Steiner works with students in small groups in resource rooms or supporting individual children in Kindergarten through third grade classrooms. She is typically assigned to specific students identified with special needs. 
 
"The students I work with are often at different levels in their academic and social progress and I need to be able to support them in different ways," said Steiner.
 
The vital role that Steiner and her colleagues play strongly back the phase that paras and education support staff are "the engines that keep our public schools running." She believes that if often exemplified by their "one-on-one" with students with special needs.
 
"Teachers will sometimes come to us and ask for insights because we work with so closely with individual students — and they have a whole class to attend to," said Steiner. "Sometimes they’re not aware of a certain strength or behavioral issue that has come up and we can communicate that," she added.
 
At the same time that teachers and many parents recognize paras for their impact on student success, their important contributions in our schools are still sometimes overlooked. Steiner believes that more can be done to publicize the "behind the scenes" work that she and her colleagues do every day.
 
"It's important to get the message out that as paras we provide an important layer of support," Steiner said. "We help students meet their goals and use the tools they need to succeed — just like any parent does for their own child," she added.
 
Click here for a 2016 national report on the role of paras in supporting ELL students.
 
The move toward inclusion policies that "mainstream" students with special needs began decades ago in Connecticut, increasing demand for paras to provide critical classroom support to special education teachers. Still, as recently as last year, a state lawmaker dismissed them in a public hearing as "babysitters."
 
Click here for a report on efforts to pass legislation requiring professional development citing the politician's outrageous remarks.
 
Steiner believes that if elected officials could "walk a day in a para's shoes," they'd be surprised at the job's demands — and the flexibility required to meet them.
 
“They'd see that we have to be able to jump right in and do what we're supposed to do, regardless of the circumstances," said Steiner. "Sometimes we'll be assigned to a different classroom and have to pick up right where the class is and where the children are," she added.
 
Click here to watch Steiner share more about her important work and why she gives back to her community's students.
 
In Connecticut, Paraprofessional Appreciation Day is commemorated each year on the first Wednesday of April and is an opportunity to get the message out about these valued classroom support staff. Public education advocates, working together with parents and policymakers, can help further amplify the effort by publicly recognizing paras for their contributions throughout the school calendar year.