Every day, paraprofessionals are in classrooms, libraries and sometimes even the lunchrooms of area schools, and teachers and administrators alike say they play an important role in education.
“They are certainly my right-hand man,” said DiRae Boyd, a special education teacher at Hays Middle School, of the nine paras that work in her classroom.
“They are absolutely crucial to the success of our school at this stage,” said Holy Family Elementary Principal Rachel Wentling. Paraprofessional Appreciation Day is Wednesday, but at Holy Family, the school celebrated its 14 paras a day early so it wouldn’t get lost with another school activity on Wednesday.
“In those lower grades, we really need that extra person, that extra set of hands to just help manage what’s going on in a classroom of very busy little people,” Wentling said.
“I think the students look up to them as much as they look up to the teachers,” she said.
Three experienced paras in Ellis County who spoke to The Hays Daily News all had slightly differing experiences, but one theme was constant — nothing is ever the same day to day.
“You have to be ready for change every single day,” said Kami Weber, a para with the West Central Kansas Special Education Cooperative at Victoria High School and Junior High School.
The cooperative comprises Hays USD 489 — the sponsoring district — Ellis USD 388, La Crosse USD 395 and Victoria USD 432, placing 124 special education paras in those districts as well as Holy Family, TMP Junior/Senior High, and KVC Wheatland Hospital.
Weber has been at Victoria for more than 10 years. She’s worked at all the Victoria schools, but has worked strictly at the junior/senior high school the last four.
Right now, she’s the only para at the high school. There is an opening for a second at the high school, but Weber said for a small school district like Victoria it can be difficult to find someone for the job.
In past years, a para from the elementary school could fill in for an hour or two at the junior/senior high if needed, Weber said, but the Victoria district has seen an increase in special education students this year.
“There is getting to be more of a demand for more paras, and sometimes the hours that they give us, the benefits we don’t get really make a difference on where somebody wants to work,” she said.
“Plus, we’re such a small community, not a lot of people want to work over here, unless you’re here,” she said.
Weber is a VHS alumnus, and she and her husband own Weber Body Shop in Victoria. She is also a volunteer EMT and firefighter there. Her job provides her family with health insurance, but it is expensive.
“They are eligible for benefits, but because they’re not full-time, the board contribution is less than it would be for full-time employees,” said Chris Hipp, special education director for the cooperative. About 40 percent of paras are enrolled in benefits.
Paras in the cooperative did receive a $2 an hour raise to $11.35 per hour effective this school year. Hipp said that has helped decrease the turnover rate.
“We’ve had 10 percent less turnover at this point in the year than we did last year,” he said Tuesday.
Still, there is turnover to be expected, he said, with a job that’s less than 40 hours and seasonal.
“We’ve tried to put some things in place, to spend time with candidates to make sure they know exactly as much as possible what the position looks like,” he said.
Weber’s day often varies, depending on what teachers are doing in their classrooms. For about five of the seven hours of her day, she’s working with students within their classrooms.
“Sometimes if a kid doesn’t need the one-on-one daily, but they need maybe a test read to them, I would get called from another class to go read that test to them,” she said.
Other times, students come to the resource room where she helps them with junior high science and social studies and freshman English and science.
While she has a close relationship with her students, one in particular is special. Weber has worked with eleventh-grader Jade Wagner since she was in second grade, even going with her to Special Olympics volleyball.
In P.E., she works with Jade — who uses a walker to help her get around — on exercises on a bicycle, strength training or playing catch.
She’ll even accompany Jade to prom this year.
“I followed her and will continue to follow her,” Weber said. “She’s kind of become my fourth child.”
Paras are only required to have a high school diploma or equivalent, but experience with and love of kids is important, the paras all said. Weber had a daycare business prior to becoming a para.
For others, being a para was a way to stay close to or help out family members. Shirley Kuppetz has been a para for the Ellis schools for 14 years, when her granddaughter started kindergarten.
“I thought it would be kind of fun to get to see her every day and keep in touch with her. She graduated last year, and I’m still here,” she said.
Washington Elementary School Principal John Befort said Kuppetz offers mentorship for newer paras at the school. Washington has eight paras, three of them from the cooperative.
“We have those students who struggle, so it’s good to have a little extra support,” he said.
Kuppetz starts her day at Ellis Junior/Senior high school. She works with a seventh-grade student during the first class of the day, then with eighth graders. Later in the day, she’s at Washington, working with fourth, fifth and sixth graders.
“It’s been an enjoyable experience. I like working with kids. And not to brag, but I know my math and I’m proficient with my numbers. That makes it easy,” she said.
Jeanine Kaberlein is one of the nine paras in Boyd’s classroom at HMS. She first became a para in 1989 in Garden City to learn sign language because her nephew was deaf. She has been in Hays since 1991, and has worked at the elementary grades and the Children’s Center.
Knowing sign language means Kaberlein sometimes gets called to help in other classrooms.
“Sometimes we have to pull her to share that expertise with others. Selfish me, I don’t like to,” Boyd said with a laugh.
But Boyd stressed that all of her paras are valuable in her classroom.
“Good students’ needs will not be met if we did not have the paraeducators,” she said.
Kaberlein agreed with Weber’s assessment that every day is different. While she and Boyd’s other paras work with students in Boyd’s classroom, they will also accompany students to their other classes through the day.
They might help a student with an art project, help select props for producing a commercial in a communications class or help a student select a woodworking project.
Boyd’s classroom is a former art room and home economics classroom, with some of the kitchen equipment still intact. Kaberlein said sometimes the students put that to use.
“We might bake, and bring it out to the rest of the teachers on a cart,” she said. That helps the students’ communication and public speaking skills.
She also enjoys the freedom the paras have in presenting the lessons Boyd plans.
“She has a curriculum, but she lets us decide how we can present it. We can bring our own interests,” she said.
For Kaberlein, that would be her love of history. She said she tries to bring more of the human interest aspect of it alive, such as telling the students drummer boys in the Civil War were about the same age as they are. For science lessons, she encourages them to get outside and explore or look for constellations at night.
“In everything, we like to show that we’re lifelong learners and it’s good for them to be lifelong learners,” she said.
The job can be tough, the paras admit, because they are working with students in multiple grade levels with varying degrees of abilities.
“Someone in this kind of job, you have to be willing to roll with the tides,” Weber said. “Every kid’s mood is different every day, and so you have to understand what’s going on outside of the school in their personal lives as well as in school,” she said.
Kuppetz agreed the personal touch paras can give is helpful.
“If you have a little time to visit with them, ask them about stuff, they get closer to you. And I think they work better. I learned that a long time ago with a fellow teacher. You have to talk to the kids to get their input. Because some days are not good for them,” she said.
In Boyd’s classroom, the paras can help each other out on those tough days. If one para is having a difficult time getting through to a student, another can step in and try a different approach, Boyd said.
The paras all said the rewards of the job are well worth the difficult days, however.
“When you start seeing some of them progress, it’s really rewarding,” Kaberlein said.
“I particularly enjoy the kids’ look when finally something clicks,” Kuppetz said.
“We want them to be successful in the regular classrooms with all their friends and peers, and once they do, that’s like, ‘Holy cow, I made a difference,’ ” Weber said.