The welcoming world of paraprofessionals

From supervising the cafeteria before school starts to seeing students on to busses at the end of the day, Paras have become an indispensable addition to the educational setting.
Let the day begin: paraprofessionals Bobbie Altmann, Alisa Anderson and Candace Wilfahrt (left to right) are off to their 1st hour classroom.
Let the day begin: paraprofessionals Bobbie Altmann, Alisa Anderson and Candace Wilfahrt (left to right) are off to their 1st hour classroom.
Paraprofessional Alisa Anderson working with students.
Paras: part of the DNA of the classroom

Muffled exchanges, concerned glances, heightened attention: the usual routine for freshmen at the beginning of class.

Third-hour English is reading “Warriors Don’t Cry,” a new addition to the newly revamped English department curriculum. But reading can come in a variety of forms.

Some students will read the story quietly themselves, others will listen to the audio version through school-provided headphones and others will head out into the hallway workstations to read together with paraprofessional Alisa Anderson.

Alisa, who very likely has already finished the novel ahead of the students (and teacher), is master of the situation.

She knows the pitfalls of hallway work (distractions from student passersby, temptations for small talk over school work) but also the benefits: focused realwork in a personalized setting.

“When reading to the students, I will stop and ask them questions or discuss what is going on in the book,” Anderson said.

And that can make all the difference: a quick check at regular intervals in a quiet setting can often determine whether a student stays engaged and learning or fades away and lost in the larger group.




Paraprofessional Alisa Anderson working with students.
Friday morning meeting: paras gather to discuss ways of improving their professional learning community. Pictured from left to right are Jen Bejarano, Bobbie Altmann, Alisa Anderson, Kathy Wendland and Paula Clark.
Organizing the paras: the challenge of figuring out the best combination of skills, compatibility and schedule

“There’s not a doubt in my mind that our paraprofessionals are responsible for helping some kids graduate that normally would not have, ” Special Education teacher Mrs. Cowing said.

Mrs. Cowing and Mrs. Lewandowski are responsible for placing the paraprofessionals in classrooms at NUHS, which can be a tricky calculation given all the factors involved.

High on that list of placement factors is para expertise.

“At the high school level, you have paras who are specializing now,” Cowing said. “It has sort of evolved over time, where it used to be about keeping the student on task and now they are instrumental in trying to reteach things for the student.”

Imagine sitting in a math class one day and daydreaming for a moment while the teacher is explaining a problem. You missed how to solve the equation – now what?

That is where paras enter. They can help get students back on track with an explanation of what the teacher said, and often – since they have worked with the students and know their learning habits well – they can approach the problem from another angle that might click with the student.

Biology, Algebra II, Geometry, Prob and Stats, to name just a few, are all challenging classes that paras can help breakdown and translate for students into smaller more workable units.




Jen Bejarano, Bobblie Altmann and Cheryl Mathiowetz supervising in the commons before school starts.
Jen Bejarano, Bobblie Altmann and Cheryl Mathiowetz supervising in the commons before school starts.
Learning about the paras: some inside scoop on this indispensable link in our learning community

“I knew I wanted to do to something in education and this job worked great with my kid’s schedules when they were growing up,” said Alisa Anderson, who has been a para for 26 years, 13 of them at NUHS.

“I have a four-year degree in Human Development and Family Studies, so I wanted to do some type of working with kids,” said Bobbie Altmann, who has been a para for eight years.

“I always liked working with kids, especially kids with special needs. I attended St. Cloud Technical School and that really got me motivated,” 35-year para veteran Cheryl Mathiowetz said.

Paras come from as diverse of backgrounds as the students they serve. And although the storylines quoted above are just three of the close to fourteen paras working at NUHS, the connection is clear: an interest in working in an educational setting with today’s students.

But it isn’t always easy finding the dedicated paras like the ones we have at NUHS.

Assistant Principal Mr. Guentzel is in charge of overseeing the hiring of  paraprofessionals here, as well as acting as the point of contact for paras in general. He works with the case managers to find the right fit.

One issue in the hiring of paras is getting the word out for people to apply. They have tried advertising job openings in the newspaper and on various education websites, but they have few applicants.

And those they do get can be hesitant.

“Sometimes applicants get here and don’t accept because they look at what the insurance is, they look at what the wage is – and I would say that’s probably the biggest thing, it’s a tough sell, compared to some other jobs they could take, Guentzel said.

Mr. Guentzel also encouraged students to consider a job in the paraprofessional world.

“It is a great job for kids who have just graduated high school if they are looking to go to a four-year school,” he said. “You don’t have to have plans to go into education but a lot of times you can work it around your schedule – say Tuesdays and Thursdays – and the school will take you in a heart beat.”



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