Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008 | For 30 years, teacher assistant Joyce Fullylove has tended to kids with learning disabilities, taking direction from a classroom teacher. Decades ago, she wasn’t trained — and didn’t need training, she said. Her students suffered from mild disorders, and just needed a little extra help.

“If you could read and write, you went in and did what you needed to do,” Fullylove said.

Now, as San Diego Unified opts to integrate more and more special needs students into ordinary classrooms, Fullylove is facing students with more severe disorders. Emotionally disturbed teens, once heavily segregated, are cropping up in her classroom at Lincoln High School. That worries Fullylove, who feels unprepared to handle them.

“What am I going to do if this kid blows? What if he decides to put a knife to his throat? What do I do?” Fullylove asked. “I have no idea.”

Teacher assistants work in classrooms under a trained teacher’s supervision, but aren’t certified as teachers. Over time, such employees have shouldered more and more responsibility for guiding kids with disabilities. Many work one on one with students who need extra attention to keep up in mainstream classrooms. Some have become de facto teachers for exceptional kids, despite their intended role as aides.

Yet assistants — now known as paraeducators — aren’t required to take extensive training, relying largely on on-the-job lessons from classroom teachers, who may or may not have special education savvy. A national law requires paraeducators to be “appropriately trained and supervised” to assist disabled students, but doesn’t specify what that entails. Special education trainings for paraeducators exist in San Diego Unified but have dwindled in popularity, deprived of funding.

As schools seek to integrate children with disabilities into ordinary classrooms, they rely heavily on paraeducators, whose jobs are gaining extra attention nationwide. Yet training for paraeducators is lagging, with many employees arguing that schools don’t prepare them for the unique challenges of coaching disabled kids: how to handle an emotionally disturbed student’s anger, how to focus a hyperactive kid, how to gauge when a mentally retarded child has grasped a concept, and is ready to move on.

And with state budget cuts pressing on special education spending, paraeducators are unlikely to gain more training soon.

Parents complain that some teachers push the responsibility for educating such students onto the aides, who aren’t equipped to teach them. The phenomenon is a symptom of a larger problem identified by Harvard professor Thomas Hehir, who studied San Diego Unified’s special education system in depth. Hehir found that most teachers and principals in San Diego Unified believe special education isn’t their problem, ghettoizing families with special needs in a separate bureaucracy with separate leaders.

“Paraeducators end up running the classroom” for disabled kids, said Ann Morin, whose daughter has a rare genetic abnormality, and is confined to a wheelchair. “But they haven’t been trained on how these kids learn. That’s what the teacher is supposed to do.”

Teachers, in turn, are overwhelmed juggling the needs of disabled kids with other students in sizable classes, said teachers union president Camille Zombro. When calculating class sizes, children with disabilities are counted just like other kids, despite the additional effort put into teaching them.

“We don’t often have a chance to understand what kids are bringing with them,” Zombro said. For example, to a teacher unfamiliar with the disability, a severe emotional disorder could be misread as an attitude problem. “You have to understand — that’s their disability. You can get annoyed by it every minute of every day, or learn how to tailor your work.”

Paraeducators fear missteps, and struggle to take time off for training. School sites are saddled with finding and paying substitute aides if paraeducators want to take classes offered by the district. Aides can also seek guidance from a child’s case manager, a professional who monitors their progress, district staffers said. But case managers meet with classroom teachers and paraeducators only once a month. Between meetings, some paraeducators feel stranded.

“You’re thrown into a classroom, and it’s a sink or swim situation,” said Dorene Dias Pesta, a special education health technician who works at Lincoln High. “There’s no time to talk things over with the teacher” during the school day. Paraeducators are only paid for time spent working directly with students, and share little planning time with teachers. “You walk in the door, and it’s on.”

Nationwide, schools are relying more heavily on paraeducators as districts pull disabled kids back into mainstream classrooms, an approach shown to benefit disabled kids more than segregating them with similar students. In San Diego Unified, Hehir’s report criticized schools for shunting such students into separate, less rigorous programs. Instead, Hehir advised the school district to include more disabled kids in ordinary classrooms. Paraeducators play a major role in making inclusion work, focusing extra attention on special education students trying to keep up with their able peers.

“Just putting kids in a regular class to sink or swim is not the trick,” Hehir told the school board last month.

The No Child Left Behind law recognized the growing demands on paraeducators, bulking up education requirements for new hires. After 2002, new paraeducators were generally required to spend two years at college — a significant shift from the historical expectations of teachers’ aides, who first entered schools to alleviate teacher shortages in the 1950s. Most were college-educated women who supervised classrooms and performed routine clerical tasks.

Yet amid rising expectations for paraeducators, San Diego Unified has lost resources for training them. Special education executive director Roxie Jackson estimated that her department’s training budget has plunged from $1 million to roughly $300,000 in the past three years. The cuts forced Jackson to ask individual schools to pay for substitutes when paraeducators seek training — costs that were once assumed by the special education department. Every week, a couple trainings are still held at school sites, but attendance has dropped 60 percent, Jackson said.

But the need for training has never been greater: As schools try to translate Hehir’s advice into action, putting students into mainstream classrooms, a wider range of employees need special education expertise, including principals in mainstream schools.

Today, the only mandatory special education training for paraeducators working with San Diego Unified’s disabled students is a six-hour general orientation that describes common disorders and how the special education department operates. With grim budget forecasts from the state, San Diego Unified is unlikely to expand training significantly: The department must trim $9.8 million from its budget of roughly $240 million, without severing services that the school district is required by law to provide.

Broadening training is also logistically tough. Students in the school district have such a vast array of disabilities, Jackson said, that requiring more in-depth training across the board would prove tricky. Instead, paraeducators learn specifics about their students’ disabilities on the job, and develop strategies by working with teachers, who are ultimately responsible for the student’s work.

“I can train you until the cows come home,” said Mary Sue Glynn, the district’s director of special education. “But the on-the-job training is really the most relevant.”

It’s also harrowing, Jackson acknowledges. “If you’ve never dealt with someone with mental retardation before, walking into that classroom is a big deal,” she said.

Outside the public schools, private programs that cater to disabled children use the same approach, plunging employees into the day-to-day work of teaching kids. Chris Dirda, an instructional aide who works at Pioneer Day School, had taken a few education classes in college, but had read little about autism when he interviewed for the job. He had no past experience as a teacher, and found the job on Craigslist.

Now, “I know how these kids work, inside and out,” Dirda said. Week-long trainings by autism specialists have taught him how to coax kids to listen, but the hands-on work has been essential, he said. “The most important thing is building a rapport, so they can trust you.”

But Dirda, unlike other paraeducators, is surrounded by teachers who specialize in autism. For other paraeducators who work in typical schools, tailoring ordinary lessons to extraordinary children, on-the-job training can be stressful and chaotic.

“You’re learning by the skin of your teeth,” said Williams, an instructional behavior technician at Riley School, a San Diego Unified program for students with behavioral disorders. “Every child learns differently, so you basically have to have a bag of tricks. … I just wish someone had taught me some tricks before I’d gotten into it.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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