Inside the classroom, paras are part of a vital team with certified PreK-12 teachers, working together on goals, assisting with behavioral plans and individual education programs (IEPs) for their students. They often serve as mediators between mainstream and special education, bridging the gap to provide the best possible learning experience for all students.
This work is not without its challenges. Too often, paraprofessionals are perceived as less important in delivering public education services than their certified teacher colleagues.
“We should be considered ‘all-in’ and together, not separate,” said Mary Symkowicz (pictured above, back row, 3rd from left), a para in East Hartford Public Schools, referring to the theme of this weekend’s national union conference.
“A lot of paras do this because they love it, even knowing they need to find a second job to support themselves when school lets out,” added Symkowicz, who also serves as president of the East Hartford Federation of Paraprofessionals. “They do it because they love kids, they feel the accomplishment, and know that they’re making a difference,” she said.
In Norwalk Public Schools, many paras are intervention aides who work with entire classrooms. They go where they’re needed, spanning all grades and students, to help wherever they can. Additionally, many paras are assigned to work one-on-one with students with special education needs, an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), behavioral issues or disabilities.
“We treat our students with love and respect, yet are still firm and do not coddle them,” said paraprofessional Beverly Dixon (pictured above, front row, 2nd from left). “We train and help them to be independent and successful,” added Dixon, who serves as president of the Norwalk Federation of Education Personnel.
A significant purpose of this weekend’s professional issues conference is to increase local union leaders’ public policy advocacy on behalf of paras, school support staff and their students.
for our previous update on current efforts to expand professional development opportunities for paras.
An example that Connecticut union leaders shared with fellow attendees is the fight underway by school and municipal public employees against a power grab by Hartford’s recently elected mayor. He has proposed legislation to establish an oversight commission of hand-picked appointees that would take away city residents’ rights to representation and employees’ rights to negotiate.
“Connecticut is NOT Wisconsin,” said Shellye Davis (pictured above, back row, 6th from left), a para in Hartford Public Schools. “Voters did not elect state or local representatives to deprive citizens of the right of free association, the right of free speech and the right to collectively bargain,” added Davis, who serves as co-president of the Hartford Federation of Paraprofessionals as well as AFT Connecticut vice-president for PSRPs.
“Earlier this week, [Hartford] Mayor Bronin testified in front of the legislature that he ‘met’ with unions,” said Jackie Aviles (pictured above, back row, 2nd from right), a para in the Capitol City’s schools. “But five to ten minutes does not constitute a meeting, and it does not constitute negotiations,” added Aviles, our Hartford Federation of Paraprofessionals’ other co-president.
for press coverage of efforts to resist the Hartford mayor’s scheme.
It is fitting that 2016’s Paraprofessional Appreciation Day should fall on the same day that so many of Connecticut’s local para union leaders have come together. It’s only appropriate to spotlight the vital work that they and their members do for so many thousands of our state’s students, both in and out of the classroom.