2021-22 Regional Conference Leadership Meetings Summary

The 2021-22 NRCP Leadership Meetings were held prior to each of the NRCP regional conferences and were open to National/State Paraeducator Leaders. Such leaders are people who are engaged in activities to promote paraeducator leadership at a variety of levels within their respective school districts, states, or countries. For example:

  • State staff.
  • State or regional training and TA staff.
  • Higher education personnel.
  • Persons promoting leadership through involvement in various state activities, labor organizations, committees, and advisory groups.
  • Paraeducators, parents, and anyone else who was interested also attended the meetings.

The Regional Leadership Meetings were designed to be interactive, and they provided opportunities for people to learn from other states and local districts. Below is a summary of what occurred at the three Leadership Meetings:

Attendees:

  • Western Region: 22.
  • Central Region: 19.
  • Eastern Region: 16.

Participating States:

  • Western Region: Washington, Michigan, New Mexico, Alaska, Utah, Colorado, South Dakota, and Texas.
  • Central Region: Florida, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, Minnesota, and Iowa.
  • Eastern Region: Tennessee, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Maryland, and Minnesota.

Topics Discussed:

  • National Review: Paraeducators in Education.
    • Paraeducators, paraprofessionals, instructional assistants or teacher’s aides have worked in our school systems for well over 50 years.
    • Para is a Greek word meaning “alongside of” (e.g., paralegal and paramedic).
      • A paraeducator is someone who works, “alongside of an educator”.
    • More paraeducators are in special education (514,864) than teachers are in special education (425,422) *.
  • 2004 Re-authorization of IDEA: Requirements for Paraprofessionals.
    • The State Education Agency (SEA) establishes and maintains standards to ensure paraprofessionals and assistants are appropriately and adequately trained and supervised.
  • ESSA 2015: Implication for Paraeducators.
    • Gives paraeducators a voice – a seat at the table!
    • The first time the term paraeducator appears in federal law.
  • Use of Paraeducators in Schools: Ongoing Challenges.
    • A lack of quality, ongoing, professional development tied to roles and responsibilities.
    • Poor guidance and direction to do their job because teachers often:
      • Are unclear about their own roles & responsibilities versus those of their paraeducators.
      • Teachers lack preservice/in-service training to effectively delegate tasks, train and direct the work of their paraeducators, and manage other adults in the classroom.
    • Teachers too often relinquish their responsibility of teaching students with disabilities and solely rely on paraeducators to teach students with disabilities.
    • The detrimental effects of the overuse and inappropriate use of paraeducators.
    • The lack of planning time with their teachers and instructional team.
    • Administrative support is deficient for teacher/paraeducator teams.

2004 Re-authorization of IDEA: Requirements for Paraprofessionals.

  • The State Education Agency (SEA) establishes and maintains standards to ensure paraprofessionals and assistants are appropriately and adequately trained and supervised.
  • Possible Solutions (Nationally):
    • Federal education laws must be reauthorized (IDEA & ESSA).
    • Clearer guidelines/regulations established for paraeducator training, utilization, management/supervision, and employment conditions for states to follow.
    • Standards established for paraeducator professional development and teachers’ roles in directing and overseeing the work of paraeducators.
    • Guidelines on state infrastructure development. 
  • Building a State Infrastructure: Washington state’s example:
    • State Paraeducator Board.
    • Minimum employment requirements.
    • Standards of practice.
    • Paraeducator Certificate Program.
      • Fundamental Course of Study.
      • General Paraeducator Certificate.
      • Subject Matter Certificates.
      • Advanced Paraeducator Certificate.
    • What steps did Washington state take to get there?
      • Building partnerships and lots of activism prior to 2015.
      • Exploratory workgroup (2015-2016).
      • HB 1115 (2017).
      • Funding (2019).
    • Online training for:
      • Paraeducators.
      • Teachers and administrators.
      • Clock hours
      • Curriculum development
      • Career ladder

Breakouts for small group discussions

  • 20-45-minute discussions regarding:
    • What is working well in your state, district, building?
    • What challenges are you facing on the state/district level?
    • What areas would you like to learn more about?

  • Western Region Priorities
    • Group 1
      • Establishing standards at state and local levels.
      • Providing relevant training with incentives tied to attendance to boost participation.
      • Increasing support at the state and administrative level.
      • Funding to develop statewide/district trainings.
    • Group 2
      • Strong leadership and recognition of paraeducators as valuable employees at the state and district level.
      • Deeper dive into specific trainings (e.g., effective behavior strategies, supporting students with autism, supporting students with challenging behaviors, etc.).
      • Requiring onboarding trainings for new paraeducators AND their teachers. Specifically, how to utilize paraeducators effectively in the classroom to enhance student outcomes.
    • Group 3
      • Ongoing quality professional development throughout the school year. 
      • Addressing shortages in a qualified labor force (i.e., teachers, paraeducators, and administrators).
      • Dissemination of available training. Information needs to be provided to everyone with a vested interest in a state/district, not just to administrators. Include follow ups or booster sessions to reinforce the trainings.
      • Ensure consistent, broad ranging communication extending from the state to districts to school buildings. Key information related to paraeducators should be disseminated to everyone so they are all aware of the expectations, training opportunities, and regulations.
    • Group 4
      • Building respect and support from teachers and administrators. Often teachers are not supporting or accepting of paraeducators as team members.
      • Year-round training. Training is usually received at the beginning of each school year, but additional professional development is available (in some districts) and not utilized. Trainings are not mandatory or incentivized, but they should be.
      • Professional development in working with students with challenging behavioral needs. School staff need to know how to protect themselves, teachers, students, and other staff from escalating challenging behaviors.                              
      • Understanding IEPs and the paraeducator’s role in providing services and supports.  Teachers need an enhanced understanding of the necessity of sharing IEP information with paraeducators. Paraeducators can provide insight into a student’s needs and progress, so paraeducators need a snapshot of what is in a student’s IEP to support a student’s progress on their IEP goals.
    • Group 5
      • Basic sign language knowledge for enhanced communication. Students in special education with moderate to severe disabilities may use sign language for basic communication needs, and most paraeducators don’t have basic sign language skills. Providing paraeducators sign language training will enhance communication with these students.
      • Hands-on medical/caretaking/physical therapy training. Paraeducators need to know:
        • What it is like to care for a medically fragile student.
        • How to maintain safety for all.
        • Toileting and lifting.
        • Wires and peri care.
          • Paraeducators with this knowledge will enhance teams by bringing their skills to the table.  
      • Employee shortages: how to manage shortages under current circumstances. These kinds of shortages create hardships for working paraeducators who have to step up and fill in gaps. There are not enough hands to be effective and safe.
  • Central Region Priorities
    • Group 1
      • Compensation and benefits, specifically the lack of benefits due to the part-time status of paraeducators.
      • Getting needed information from teachers to provide the best support to students.
      • Hiring and retention of paraeducators.
      • Receiving positive feedback, specifically getting recognition as a valued team member.
    • Group 2
      • Enhanced compensation.
      • Teacher awareness/training to improve teacher/paraeducator team effectiveness. Teachers struggle with how to utilize paraeducators, so they need intentional training on how to effectively engage and collaborate for effective teaching.
      • Lack of training.
    • Group 3
      • Building proactive relationships with teachers. Paraeducators don’t always receive all the information they need to serve their students effectively.  
      • Changing the view that it is, “not just a job” but a “career”. Not just anyone can be a paraeducator. So how can we recognize paraeducation as an important career?
      • Building stronger partnerships between school districts, community colleges, and universities to develop career paths for paraeducators and essential trainings for teachers who direct the work of paraeducators.
  • Eastern Region Priorities
    • Group 1
      • Building state/district policies & infrastructure. States need to communicate better with their districts, and districts need to share with school leadership. For example, sharing requirements or specific training opportunities across all schools and all staff.
      • Addressing staff shortages.
      • Increasing pay scale for paraeducators.
      • Ongoing trainings to build onto knowledge base.
    • Group 2
      • Relevant and consistent training tied to roles and responsibilities for all paraeducators in general education and special education. General education paraeducators need the same training, because they often work with special education students without the necessary training.
      • Consistently increased pay and benefits to decrease burnout and turnover. Most paraeducators are part-time with very few full-time positions. The majority are limited to 29.75 hours per week and not allowed any professional development if it extends beyond their allotted hours. Often, they are asked to leave school early to stay within their allotted weekly hours which may lead to decreased services for students.
      • More resources/support from districts and the state. For example, students have laptops but paraeducators do not. Paraeducators are not given the time to plan and prepare lessons like other teachers. This planning and preparation is often done off the clock on personal time.
    • Group 3
      • More training is needed. We want more training. We are essential members of the team, and student outcomes are dependent on all team members having the necessary training. A participant shared they have been on the job for 13 years and have never received any training. Attending this conference was the first training they were able to participate in.  
      • Building respect for the paraeducator role. We are essential and critical members of the education team and not second tier educators.
      • Increase incentives to remain on the job such as increased pay. Respect and value can be shown in payment.

In Conclusion

The NRCP’s 35th National Conference and last Leadership meetings were held in Seattle/Tacoma, WA in April 2018. Over 350 individuals attended the conference representing 34 states and Canadian provinces, including:

  • Alaska
  • Alberta
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • District of Columbia
  • Florida
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Mexico
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Dakota
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

Hosting three, virtual, Regional Conferences during the 2021-2022 school year was a new endeavor for the NRCP. It was not clear if people would attend in light of the numerous challenges we are facing in today’s changing landscape. Regardless, the NRCP determined the field needed to gather together even if it could not be face-to-face….and people came!  

It was an honor to host these three Leadership sessions; to provide everyone an opportunity to share their stories and be heard, both challenges and successes. Overwhelmingly, the feedback from the Leadership meetings was positive and stressed the value of having an opportunity to collaborate with others in the field, to feel heard, to be appreciated, and to have the role of the paraeducator highlighted as a key member of educational teams.

The overarching theme across all three meetings was the need to recognize the value of paraeducators. Value that can be demonstrated and emphasized in numerous ways such as compensation, training tied to CEUs or certificates of attendance, recognition from teachers or administrators both state and local, and support from parents. These are some ways to highlight the key role paraeducators play in our schools, and many of the suggestions to highlight and support our paraeducators cost little or no money. They simply take time and dedication to make it happen at a local and state level. Shortages of qualified paraeducators and teachers were reported across all states. The consensus was, “If paraeducators and teachers feel valued they will stay!”  Paraeducators are serving on the “front lines” of the special education world, and their role is beyond valuable to the parents, the schools, and most importantly the students they serve on a daily basis.

Moving Forward

So, what are the next steps? How do we continue to advance the field at a national, state, and district level in a meaningful way?

  • On the national level, it is time for IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) to be reauthorized. IDEA is long overdue. New legislation should:
    • Provide states with clearer guidelines/regulations for paraeducator training, utilization, management/direction/supervision, and employment conditions.
    • Develop standards for paraeducator professional development, and the teachers’ role in directing and overseeing the work of paraeducators should also be addressed. 
    • Develop federal guidance on district and local administrators’ role in supporting effective teacher/paraeducator teams.   
  • Building state infrastructures supporting paraeducator employment, training and career development such as in Washington state’s example, takes time. It does not happen overnight!

And finally, as the founder of the NRCP, Anna Lou Pickett said, “To change policy and build infrastructure, one must drip, drip, drip away and never give up!” History shows us that once established and approved, state standards, policies, and effective practices can all disappear when personnel in key state and local positions change. Building State Paraeducator Consortiums, or special interest groups, can help prevent that from happening through proactive, preventative measures.

Getting the right people to the table makes a difference. You can be that person!

In fall of 2022 we are proposing to hold a virtual National Conference and Leadership session across all states and interested countries. Information will be posted on our website/social media accounts early this summer.

Stay Tuned!

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