- NEA President applauded the critical work of ESPs and their critical role in school and student success.
- ESPs in Delaware and around the country are creating much-needed mentoring programs for their colleagues.
- Despite the challenges of the pandemic and ongoing staff shortages, ESPs have overcome obstacles to serve their schools and students.
Mari Biscieglia was one of many education support professionals who NEA President Becky Pringle met during a busy visit to Delaware earlier this week – a three-day trip where she surveyed educators broadly about their concerns and successes and championed the work of ESPs as they celebrated Education Support Professional Day during American Education Week.
Beyond her commitment to ESPs and pledge to prioritize their work during her term, however, Pringle described a special connection to Biscieglia’s work as she met with her at Appoquinimink High School in Middletown, DE, where Biscieglia is a special education paraeducator and president of the ESP affiliate for the district.
“I have a special needs nephew,” Pringle said, pausing and becoming emotional. “There are lots of things about your work that I am interested in and I could thank you for, but it was paras like you that got him through. As part of his family, I want to say thank you for that. I am a big fan and I have gotten a chance to hear incredible work you are doing as a local leader, but that, also, is very, very important to me.”
Biscieglia, Pringle noted, like many of the other ESPs she has met during her national Joy, Justice and Excellence Tour, works hard each day in an often undervalued but critical position, but then puts in extra effort to improve the circumstances of paraeducators, other ESPs and students longer term.
“Secretaries, custodians, nutrition workers bus drivers, paras and other ESPs – I don’t believe we could have made it through the last few years without them. I know we can get to a point where all educators across the board are valued and treated like the true professionals they are,” Pringle said.
Biscieglia, an activist parent who became a volunteer, a paraeducator and then head of the district’s Appoquinimink ESP Association, has led efforts to improve conditions and recognition for ESPs in the district, and develop a peer mentoring structure for them, something that is routine for new teachers but not paraeducators.
“When I was hired in 2009, I had never worked with special education students and didn’t receive training or guidance. I learned my experience is a common one, but it shouldn’t be. There was mentoring for new teachers when I was hired, but nothing like that for ESPs,” Biscieglia said. “I felt with one-on-one mentoring, we might be able to be more confident and step into those roles and have a sense of who we are and what we are doing.”
Across the country, NEA is supporting the development of such mentoring programs, including in nearby Red Clay, where the district’s paraprofessional association started the first one in Delaware.
Biscieglia noted that other ESP groups have supported her, and she praised the state and national association for their backing of ESPs generally.
“Just keep advocating for us,” she told Pringle and Delaware State Education Association President Stephanie Ingram, who partnered with Pringle on the trip. “We need you to speak truth to power. Decisions are being made that affect us and our students by people who have never been in a classroom or who have been out of the classroom for a very long time.”
Biscieglia’s was one of many stories Pringle heard about the challenges and successes of ESPs as she zipped around the state, visiting a half dozen school facilities over three busy days, meeting with more than 50 educators and spending time with students throughout the trip
Delaware First Lady and education advocate Tracey Quillen Carney, state Education Secretary Dr. Susan Bunting, three superintendents, Delaware State Education Association (DSEA) leaders, and a wide-range of educators, including many local association leaders, discussed a range of topics with her during the wide-ranging tour. But often for Pringle and Ingram, ESPs were the priority.
At Smyrna, DE, High School on Tuesday they met with Ginger Barkley, who, like Biscieglia, helps support special needs students, working as a secretary in a busy special education department. Pringle and Ingram helped surprise Barkley with an award recognizing her as DSEA ESP of the month. Pringle praised Barkley and noted ESPs “so often lead to schools and students being successful."
Ingram noted that her colleagues strongly endorsed Barkley as the recipient of the award. "Our schools can’t open their doors without the hard work of education support professionals like you. Your co-workers say you are the type of person who supports everyone. It doesn’t matter if it is a student, a staff member or a member of the school community, they say you are always there to help if they need a friendly face, something to eat, or just someone to listen – you are always available."
“I know the very important role ESPs played during the pandemic and now as schools rebuild,” she said.
The two on Wednesday also visited the bus yard for Colonial School District in New Castle, DE, to meet with James Miller and Jeanette Ousey, officers in the local transportation affiliate, a conversation that continued while riding the bus with Miller.
They discussed the work bus drivers did during the pandemic to deliver meals to isolated students and their families, the responsibilities of drivers and bus attendants, including for medically fragile students with special equipment and physical needs. They also talked about the challenges they face every day which often include significant shortages of drivers and attendants
“We just really want to get recognition,” Ousey, vice president of the local said, as she talked about her negotiations with school administrators and the importance of the drivers speaking with one voice and linking with other ESPs. “The aides who are with us, too, are so important. We are a team when we have students with special needs. These members of our team are so critical, and they often don’t get much attention.”
Later, as Pringle visited a lively celebration for nearly 40 food service workers with the Appoquinimink School District based in Odessa, DE, Natalie Richards, a cook at Olive B. Loss Elementary School in Bear, DE, talked about why the union was critical to her.
“There are so many important issues facing schools -- It is good to know the union is looking out for us,” she said as she introduced a new employee to some of the food service workers gathered for the re-started bi-annual gathering, which had been canceled since the start of the pandemic. The new employee was one of seven attending the meeting, six of whom joined the union that day.
Pringle told the group she was particularly happy to be with them on National Education Support Professionals Day and highlight their work and needs during her term.
“Honestly, I am so pleased just to come here and say thank you for all you do for our kids,” she told the workers. “We want to celebrate you every day, but I needed to take a moment today on this special day and just come and tell you how much we appreciate you.”
Pringle’s trip also included visits in recognition of specialized support professionals, including Elizabeth Getka , a school psychologist for the Woodbridge School District, who received the award for Delaware school psychologist of the year, and Gloria Ho, a school social worker at Milton, DE, Elementary School, who has developed a school-based food pantry. She also recently co-founded the School Social Workers Association of Delaware (SSWADE) to help support the DSEA-backed state legislation that will fund mental health units in schools.
Along with the attention to ESPs, Pringle and Ingram toured schools and chatted with teachers and students in several classrooms and met with administrators about their concerns.
A highlight was her visit to the K-8 Bancroft School in inner-city Wilmington, which benefited from a $253,683 NEA grant to DSEA in 2017 to “provide targeted support to educators and reduce the impact of trauma on students.”
They spent time in several classrooms taught by what Bancroft Principal Krystal Greenfield called the school’s super stars, including Chrystal Harrigan, who grew up in the community and began work in education as a paraeducator, during which time she pursued the education and credential needed to become a full-time teacher.
Christina School District Superintendent Dan Shelton told Pringle about the district’s efforts and desire to help interested paraeducators become full-time teachers. “It is critical given the shortages we face,” he said.
Pringle also visited the busy, inviting Bancroft fourth-grade classroom of Karen Eller, where students asked her a string of questions (including about the her name and its connection to a favorite snack food); and showed off their hard work, hydroponic lettuce garden, and yoga practices. Speaking with these students gave Pringle another opportunity to champion ESPs.
When she asked how many of them liked school, nearly all the students, sitting on the floor in the front of the classroom, quickly shot up their hands.
“I love school,” nine-year-old Jeannetta Saunders shouted.
“That’s wonderful,” Pringle said. “You have a great school with adults who can really help you – your teachers, but also the people who make those wonderful breakfasts, drive you on the buses, keep you safe and all the adults who provide you with everything you need. When I heard about the work they are doing and how you were coming back to school and learning in ways that all students should have an opportunity to enjoy. I said – I have to come to Delaware and see you and all the educators who are helping you. I needed to find out about it and tell other people all around the country how great it is.”