Hit the Road, Hit the Books
Wisconsin support professionals go the extra mile to gain certification.
By John Rosales
The Marshfield school district where Tess Upton works lies in the heart of Wisconsin, a state known for its picturesque river towns, shimmering lakes, hidden valleys, and high mountain peaks. This natural beauty sustains Upton as she crisscrosses the state in search of professional development opportunities.
Tess Upton scours the state of Wisconsin for professional development opportunities.
"I can drive three hours in any direction before leaving the state," says Upton, a library assistant at Madison Elementary School. She’s one of thousands of Wisconsin education support professionals (ESPs) who scour the state for classes that count toward certification. The ESP certificate is awarded through the Professional Development Academy (PDA), a Madison-based nonprofit supported by the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC).
Launched in 1994, the program’s enrollment is now 8,500 strong. Almost 900 ESPs have earned certification since its inception. Still, professional development for ESPs remains far more sporadic than for teachers, so when courses are offered, they tend to fill up fast. "I’m always checking the [WEAC] Web site to see what courses are up," Upton says. If a class is being taught far away, she says, she and other Marshfield ESPs often "get a hotel room and make a weekend of it."
When PDA was created in 1991 to promote and deliver staff development for WEAC members, educators, and other school district personnel, it didn’t offer training for ESPs. "One of the WEAC leaders…was a school secretary," says Debra Berndt, a former high school teacher who's now the program's director. "She told the others how there was little training available for support staff." Before long, a design team was formed, ultimately deciding on a "career continuum" approach, in which participants move from instruction in a variety of content areas to more concentrated learning in specific topics.
The program evolved into two levels. The first requires 40 hours of class time in four core areas: communication, legal and ethical studies, behavior management, and growth and development. Certification also requires a number of electives, including studies in areas—such as nutrition, hazardous materials, and technology—applicable to ESPs’ daily job responsibilities. Level II certification requires 80 additional instructional hours, focusing on one or two job-specific content areas, including substitute teaching, classroom management, and labor studies.
The PDA does not conduct classes of its own, but approves and awards credit for courses offered by school districts, universities, professional groups, and educational service agencies. ESPs usually pay an application fee, in addition to the cost of attending classes other than those offered by their home district. The challenge is finding the "right class at the right time and the right place," says Upton. "If I want to take a weekday class, I have to take a day [off] work without pay." Upton knows ESPs who will get up at 4 a.m. on a Saturday and drive three hours to attend an 8 a.m. class. For some, it takes years to graduate.
While certification includes a transcript for district personnel files, it may or may not result in a pay raise. "Our district went above and beyond the call of duty," says Sue Schraeder, a special needs teaching assistant with Grant Elementary School in Marshfield. "Once our administrators realized how their support staff could become better workers and more self-confident, they anted up."
Under the current contract between her school district and the Marshfield Auxiliary Personnel Association, Level I graduates receive a one-time bonus of $300, while those who complete Level II get $600. Also, for every hour of class that Marshfield ESPs complete, their hourly wage increases by a penny. “You can earn 40 cents more per hour simply for attending class," she says.
Schraeder adds that the program has helped her work better with all students, from kids with disabilities to bullies. "It taught me different strategies," she says. "You learn how to notice things on the playground or the school bus, and how to stop something negative from happening."
Her experience is typical, says Berndt. "Participants tell us they feel so much more valued in the education community," she says. "They also feel quite energized by learning new things."