Paraprofessional: Important work behind the scenes

A certain support staff works day in and day out in the Princeton public school system, sometimes unrecognized by the general public.

That group is the school district’s classified employees called paraprofessionals, or paras for short. They are seen pushing wheelchairs, helping students who have developmental challenges, working in behavioral and in school suspension rooms, in the health offices, certain classrooms, as well as supervising on the playgrounds and cafeterias to name some of their jobs.

These paras received some recognition Jan. 16-20, when Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton proclaimed that as paraprofessional week in Minnesota, and copies of the proclamation certificate were available for school department heads to give to their paras. In the Princeton school district the paras total 122.

Many employees of the Princeton schools who were contacted last week for this story commented on the role of paras in the schools.  Princeton High School Principal Pete Olson called the paras “a vital link in helping students become successful.”  Many of the paraprofessionals work with “kids who are struggling with special needs and disabilities,” often one to one, he added. There are a range of struggles seen, including emotional and physical, or just getting behind academically for one of a variety of reasons, Olson also said.

PHS Assistant Principal Emorie Colby said that PHS, with its 22 paraprofessionals, has fewer paras than it did a few years ago. Olson noted that some of the paras will be leaving because of federal stimulus program funds expiring. One of those para positions is held by Jules Zimmer, who checks in regularly with certain students at the school to make sure they keep on track with their school work, Olson said.

One of vital paraprofessional positions is the health assistant. Each of the classroom buildings had one. Linda Alexander, whose credentials include a background as a registered nurse, has been the high school’s health assistant paraprofessional since 1996.

Alexander sees an average of 50-75 people per day at her office who need some kind of health assistance or have health-related questions. Most are students, with remainder being staff members.

The health issues she deals with  range from stomach aches, diarrhea, flu, high temperatures and pneumonia to the student who is a hemophiliac with possible bleeding, along with the diabetics, and those with injuries. Students sometimes come out of a phy ed class with sprains or head injuries, she explained.

A school health assistant must have a medical background and be certified in CPR and basic first aid.

The health assistants also hand out prescribed medicines during the day, following doctors’ orders and health files at the health office. Posters on diet, drugs, alcohol and other health topics cover the walls of the office of Alexander, who says she is constantly answering questions from students about these subjects. “All the health offices are crazy busy,” Alexander said.

“Awesome,” says Principal Finck.

South Elementary Principal Greg Finck called the district’s paraprofessionals “awesome,” and said that “without them, we couldn’t do the job we’re doing.” As Finck said this, paraprofessional Brenda Flaten was helping three students with remedial subject work in a classroom at South Elementary. South has the largest number of paras of any building in the school district, at 36.

Up at North Elementary, paraprofessional Jessica West talked last Thursday about the job of being a para. She mentioned the various areas they work in, including those who work with “struggling students, to ensure that while they may be different, they are not less.

All of us are a part of a big team in our capacities, striving to make a difference.”

West then added: “Paras aren’t often the first person you think of when you send a child to school, but chances are that all district 477 students have, at one time or another in their school career, benefited from a knowledgeable and caring paraprofessional.” She called the week of recognition “flattering and appreciated because Princeton paraprofessionals really do make a difference.”

Dan Voce, principal of the middle school which has 20 paras, said: “We certainly do appreciate the work they do, and they support the student population that needs more help to be successful in school. (Speaking) as a principal, we’re very fortunate to have a talented group that really cares about students. That’s a combination you look for, no matter who works in your school.”

Marie Bleskachek, the paraprofessional who runs the district’s central duplicating department, is the most senior of the district’s paras, being in the job for 35 years. As she stood amidst stacks of printed papers in the district’s central duplicating area last Thursday, she observed one major improvement in her job over time. The old duplicating equipment produced fumes and required exhaust systems and starting seven years ago the district got more modern equipment without all that. She doesn’t even have to clean ink off rollers anymore, and is glad for the changes, she said.

A half floor down from central duplicating in the district office building and down one hallway is the office of community education director Gwen Anderson. Anderson, like administrators in other buildings in the district had recognized their paras that week in one way or another. Anderson noted that the early childhood family education department in her building has nine paraprofessionals. A lot of the work by these paras is one to one with the students including those helping with speech and language skills, Anderson noted. “Without the paras, the schools would not function,” Anderson said. “They’re invaluable.”