As one BVSD kindergartener was finishing his online school for the day, he leaned into the camera and quietly whispered, “I miss you,” to his Special Education Paraeducator. When it comes to SPED Paras, some call them angels and some call them unsung heroes. Whether they are teaching online or in-person, they have adapted, and they have continued to thrive at building close relationships with their students.
“The Special Ed Paras that are in-person right now are angels,” said Monica Manley, Special Ed Para at Creekside Elementary, who is teaching from home this year. “They are saints. They are risking their health to be with the kids who they love. They are completely selfless and they are amazing. I am inspired by every Special Ed Para I know that is working in-person right now and at how much they love the kids. They care about the kids, about their learning and about the parents. I'm in awe constantly.”
“We really do make a difference,” said Barbara Kase,Trainer for Paraeducators in Special Education Programs and Student Support for Boulder TEC. “They [students] do get attached to the Paras and we have special relationships with them. We’re extensions and we are a team.”
There are approximately 300 SPED Paras across the district. Lisa Larsen, Intensive Special Education Paraeducator in the ILC at Eisenhower Elementary and President of the Boulder Valley Paraeducator Association couldn’t agree more that they are critical members of the BVSD team.
“I’ve just been in awe of Paras,” said Larsen. “They have continued to be warm and welcoming, fun and accepting, and they’ve been that safe, consistent, trusted place [for students]. I’ve also seen that [feeling] from parents because they get to know the Paras and how they work with their kids. I am just blown away by who these people [Paras] are and that there are so many. We’re kind of unsung heroes. We’re making it happen and making it possible.”
Academically, Special Ed Para’s are tasked with “scaffolding” lessons, or making information more readily available for their students. This might include changing the language, speaking at a different pace, giving more time to process, or providing more visuals.
Socially and emotionally, SPED Paras are a trusted source of support for their students helping them with hygiene, eating, toileting, maneuvering, inclusion, behavior, and positive reinforcement.
“My primary role is to support [special education] children with an Individual Education Plan,” said Sera Swan Vogel, Autism ILC Paraeducator at Mesa Elementary. “These programs are in schools with the hopes that we can be as inclusive as possible with the students in the General Education classes. The goal is to really have the students in the classroom with their peers and we provide support as needed. We help them to achieve their goals, and these can be academic goals and they can be behavioral goals.”
“There is a range of assistance provided and it’s based on the individual needs of the student,” added Larsen. “And that’s where Paras come in. There would be no way that a teacher could possibly do that for every student in their caseload. As Paras, we get to be that connection. We get to see where their strengths are and work on those, increase those, and build on those. We also see where the students struggle, and build the bridge to help them get through the challenge.”
Being a Special Education Para requires unique training. It requires a lot of thought to break down an assignment or break down a task. It also involves respect and sensitivity, and building tight bonds with students so they feel safe and secure.
“Our training has to be broken down into task analysis,” added Kase. “This is what it takes to be successful working with our students and their individual needs. For us it’s very specialized. It’s being respectful of the family's environment, and being respectful if the student has a behavioral issue that they don’t necessarily want the rest of the class to see. And so you have to be very sensitive to those things.”
Some SPED Para’s have had their own challenges to work through with the transitions during COVID, mainly technology. Many of them did not have Chromebooks, so learning the technology and software programs has been a very steep curve.
“The Paras in our program have done a phenomenal job learning technology and that has made a huge difference,” said Jen Gerno, Transition Specialist. “We all showed up in August not even knowing what Schoology was or how to access it. They now know how to do Schoology, they're building Pear Decks, they’re finding online games. That's above and beyond I think, and when we talk to our Paras they are excited. We've been able to discover [new technology] because of this and that's going to help us outside of school too. Like how to be better at Google Meets and Google Drive. So there’s really been a high emphasis on technology that people have really embraced and I think that’s helped a lot.”
Even through the technology challenges, the creative talents of the Paraeducators have shown through even more. They are finding ways to make online learning engaging and captivating for their students.
“We had a 7th grader that we helped with outdoor education like field trips, and that wasn’t possible when we went online,” said Swan Vogel. “We had a Betta fish in the classroom, so we were able to set him up with his own fish at home. That was a really good way to connect with him every day because we would start out talking about the fish. It was a unique fish tank where the fish was supporting an ecosystem of sprouts that grew on top of the tank. That was a really good way to connect with him.”
“I've been really impressed with both the staff and students,” added Gerno. “We’re finding ways to be creative and turn this situation into an opportunity as opposed to a negative. We end each of our classes now with a 30-minute fun game-time. We do things like play Pictionary or word search games or Charades. So there’s a real element just to get to know each other and have that fun piece. We also are using our Paras to staff our lunch breaks. So students that just want to hang out to talk to somebody, be it a friend or staff, they have that opportunity, we call it Lunch Bunch. You can just hop in [online] and be with each other as if you were having lunch together. So I think that has helped a lot.”
Special Ed Para’s are there for students from Preschool all the way through the transitions program that takes them to age of 21. All students in BVSD who receive special education services in high school are offered further support once they graduate. The transition program serves students 18-21 who are on an IEP and need ongoing services after four years of high school to move into the adult world. There are currently about 40 students in the program. Changes have needed to be made in that program as well during the Pandemic.
“We really had a massive shift because we were about 75% or more a community-based program,” said Gerno. “We weren't only working in-person, we were out in the community. We've enhanced our classes online to provide instruction that we used to provide in the community such as rec center fitness classes. We're now teaching our students how to access fitness in a Covid world like how to find a good YouTube walking video or Yoga class, and we then participate right there on the camera in those classes with the students. We have money skill classes that normally are out doing shopping at a grocery store, and so we’re learning to shift those into easy budgeting things. Is it ideal? No. But is it working? Yes.”
Paras do this job because they care about the students. And just like all educators, they miss being in person with them.
“I do miss being in person,” said Manley. “I would love to be back in person. I miss the kids, I miss the interaction. I don't love being online. I'm not a technology person. I don't want to sit in my house every day at a desk. I want to be moving around with the kids and interacting. I’m very hopeful and excited to get back in person when it happens.”
“Terribly, terribly, terribly,” is how Larsen answered the question of if she misses her students. “There are some kids I haven’t seen online and it’s like I used to spend hours with that student and I have barely seen them this semester. We do this job because we so care about the kids. It is a hard job and you know it’s low paid, we’re hourly workers. We don’t get paid in the summer. So to come back to it year after year, we do it because there is an extraordinary moment when you have put so much time into working with the student and everything clicks into place. It's just so extraordinary to get to that.”
BVSD thanks our Special Education Paras for their dedication and commitment. We highlight them as our “BVSD Heroes.”