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ESPs Keep Students Engaged

In this issue of NEA Today we explore “engaged," one of five tenets illustrating the ways education support professionals (ESPs) meet the needs of the whole student.
Published: 08/02/2016

In this issue of NEA Today we explore “engaged.” It is one of five tenets used by NEA to illustrate the various ways education support professionals (ESPs) help to meet the needs of the whole student. The five tenets are listed at the top of this page.

When students are engaged in their own learning, and encouraged to explore their intellectual interests, personal identities, and career choices, they are more likely to excel at school. Often, ESPs help to foster that engagement and keep students connected to their school and the larger community.

Within these pages, you’ll meet Nancy Burke, an instructional paraeducator from Haverhill, Mass., who started a school garden to expose students to fresh air and nature. We’ll also introduce you to George Wood, a popular New Jersey bus driver known for dressing up as Santa Claus during school fundraisers and for breaking into song during bus rides. Norman Cosgrove, a sign language interpreter from Alaska, supervises an aeronautics club where students must commit to improving their community through volunteer work and other activities before joining. Finally, be sure to read about the work of Ann Benninghoff from Colorado. This paraeducator started a non-combative martial arts class that meets in the school gym. These ESPs, like so many in our nation’s public schools, encourage students to explore and connect classroom lessons with real-world challenges and adventures.

Engaged and Connected Students

Nancy Burke, Instructional Paraeducator


When she first asked permission to use a vacant interior school courtyard, Burke didn’t imagine a “salsa garden” with a variety of peppers, tomatoes, and cilantro, or a “stew garden” of carrots, onions, and different types of potatoes. But that is what grows there today. The project engages more than two dozen special needs students whenever they are on campus. Burke says the garden is about more than just growing healthy foods. “The students and all the gardens are a focus of school pride,” she says. “They encourage students to identify with and be proud of their school.”

The gardens serve as a learning lab, Burke says. They are a form of therapy, and provide a safe, relaxing space where students can get fresh air and connect with nature. Burke has always wanted to get her students out of the classroom, though it was not always as convenient as it is today. In the beginning, many of Burke’s students who were in wheelchairs, or faced other physical limitations, had difficulty navigating the flat, soft garden ground.

 Eventually, with the assistance of students and several Eagle Scouts, she was able to initiate raised bed gardens, benches, and a ramp for wheelchair accessibility. The raised beds were critical to students in wheelchairs who otherwise would not have been able to fully participate with in-ground gardens. The gardens connect with special needs students and students in the House Construction Class who recently built a shed to store garden equipment. Student council members have also gotten involved by helping to rake, clean, plant, and water flowers.

“The students and staff love going out there,” Burke says. “Our plans are to put in a pumpkin patch and plant small sugar pumpkins and a variety of squash.”

The benefits of school gardens are numerous, and Burke has created a way for students to receive a hands-on experience in natural science and botany. She teaches about water and energy cycles, pollination, and the reasons why we need to care about the natural environment. Once limited to indoor classrooms, Burke’s students now have the sorts of opportunities that only nature can provide. 

Studies show that active learning in spaces that are less structured and participatory is best. At Haverhill, students are more likely to try eating vegetables they helped to grow.

“We’ve had one student say he would never eat squash, so we figure if he plants them in the spring, perhaps he might just eat them in the fall,” Burke says.

Ann Benninghoff, Paraeducator


While their peers are engaged in other morning activities, 35 students at a school about 20 miles south of Denver head to the gym to meet with trained instructors and practice Dahn Mu Do, a non-combative martial art with roots dating back thousands of years into Korean history. 

Paraeducator Ann Benninghoff started the classes, which promote physical movements that follow academic themes like sequence learning and linear structure. 

“She saw a need with our students,” says principal Jennifer Pennell. “Students are able to get some physical exercise and get focused and centered, then go to class, which is a wonderful gift for a lot of our kids.” For more, listen to Benninghoff describe the program in a video at 

George Wood, School Bus Driver


Although his job description says “school bus driver,” George Wood says the truth is that “depending on the day, I can be a singer, a songwriter, or a best pal to my students.” An active participant in his neighborhood and community, Wood was Santa Claus for the district’s “An Evening with Santa” fundraiser. “Fortunately, none of my students have caught on to the fact that I’m the Santa,” he says. 

Wood also donned a cardboard costume decorated to look like a small piece of a school bus. With the help of other bus drivers wearing different sections of the bus, they formed an entire bus for a local hunger walk. The group collected several hundred pounds of food for local families. Wood has even picked up and delivered cases of Girl Scout cookies to girls who didn’t have a means of getting to the cookie distribution site. Wood says he is most proud of transporting students with disabilities to and from school.

His hard work pays off. Parents tell Wood their children return home happy, singing, and looking forward to the next day when they can board Wood’s bus and get driven to school.

Norman Cosgrove, American Sign Language Communication Aide


To join the Delta-Greely Radio Controlled Fliers at Fort Greely Middle School, students must have at least a 3.0 grade point average and no disciplinary reports. They must also commit to improving their neighborhoods and community through volunteer work and other activities. Despite the high bar for admittance, Norman Cosgrove supervises what is arguably the most popular club at the school. Able to accommodate approximately 20 students at one time, the club has a waiting list of at least 60 students!

“I think there are more than a few kids who are excited to come to school just because of this club,” says Cosgrove. “They want to learn, and [they] have found something that stimulates that yearning for knowledge.” 

Before they can fly the radio-controlled, fixed-wing, and gyrocopter aircrafts, club members must train on a flight simulator using remote control.

“A lot of what they learn in the classroom gets applied in this club,” Cosgrove says. “We need to engage students on every level and allow time for a gradual transition into adulthood.”

Students are admitted into the club only after they can make three consecutive takeoffs and landings without crashing. Once a student is qualified to fly, they receive a Delta-Greely Radio Controlled Fliers Club pilot’s license and metallic wings at a school assembly. The fliers club has officers and bylaws, and is a member of the Amateur Modelers of Aeronautics. Student representatives have made presentations to the Delta-Greely School Board and local Moose Lodge, and involvement in the club often leads to an interest in aviation occupations, such as pilot and flight control operator, Cosgrove says. 

“Membership in the club connects math, science, history, and other subjects to the real world,” he says. “It makes me proud of my school and my kids.”  

Here’s What Educators Can Do to Engage Students

Engaged students are academically active and connected to their school and broader community. There are many ways for ESPs, teachers, and other staff to help students become more engaged in and out of class. That’s especially true as students often experience difficulty transitioning between grade levels, from high school to college, or into the working world. These helpful guidelines will help educators, parents, and other adults promote the connection between textbook learning and real world experience.

  1. Use active learning strategies, such as cooperative learning and project-based learning. Students are prepared to assume age-appropriate responsibility for learning through effective decision making, goal setting, and time management.
  2. Offer a range of opportunities for students to contribute to and learn within the community at large, including service learning, internships, apprenticeships, and volunteer projects.
  3. Use curriculum-related experiences, such as field trips and outreach projects, to complement and extend curriculum and instruction. Curriculum and instruction promote students’ understanding of the real-world, global relevance, and application of learned content.
  4. Employ a range of inquiry-based, experiential learning tasks and activities to help students deepen their understanding of what they are learning and why they are learning it. Staff should work closely with students to help them monitor and direct their own progress.
  5. Support, promote, and reinforce responsible environmental habits through recycling, trash management, sustainable energy, and other efforts.
  6. Reinforce citizenship and civic behaviors by students, which includes meaningful participation in decision making. For example, encourage students when appropriate to run for student council.
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