Paraeducators Fill Substitute Gap

It used to be that when a special education instructional aide called in sick, the work would remain undone. "The assumption used to be that there weren't any substitutes available so why bother," said Andria Davidson, Long Beach Unified School District paraeducator coordinator. Now, with Davidson's help, the district is able to fill most special education aide substitute requests. New substitutes also become a ready source of skilled and motivated employees ready to interview and secure permanent positions with the district when openings occur. Thanks to an innovative grant sponsored by the district, the U.S. Department of Education and California State University Long Beach, the new aides have the opportunity to have their college tuition paid for as they train to become special education teachers for LBUSD students. Instructional aide-special employees, also known as paraeducators, assist special education teachers in helping students improve in academics, communication, self care and pre-vocational and vocational skills. As part of the major reorganization of special education in 2000, Davidson became the district's advocate for paraeducators. Anyone who wants to become a paraeducator, or who wants a paraeducator at their site, eventually meets Davidson. Working with the Personnel Commission, she conducts the preliminary oral interview for all paraeducator candidates. With 17 years of experience as a special education teacher and program facilitator, she knows the demands of each assignment--whether in deaf and hard of hearing classrooms, as interpreters or as speech and language communication aides. She matches candidates with sites, increasing the probability of success for the new employees and students. For those who want to pursue a full-time profession, the new Long Beach Paraeducator Grant with CSULB offers three years of paid college tuition to become a special education teacher. Nicole Hinojosa has taken advantage of the grant to pursue her dream of a classroom career. The outstanding paraeducator first volunteered, then became a college student aide before becoming a paraeducator. Now working at Lakewood High School, Hinajosa has primary responsibility for a tenth grader who won the Most Improved Student Award from the Long Beach Council for Exceptional Children. "She is a superb paraeducator, but that doesn't make her unique in the district," said Davidson. "There are others like her who add their own creative strategies and materials for their students, which their teachers are able to use with other students. Nicole is going to make a dynamite teacher."