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NEA News

The Poet of Paras

Massachusetts paraeducator Saul Ramos named 2017 NEA ESP of the year.

Key Takeaways

  1. Saul Ramos, a paraeducator from Massachusetts, is named NEA ESP of the Year for 2017.
  2. An ESP group from New Hampshire created an organization there to foster and promote the understanding of mental illness.
  3. New Hampshire paraeducators organized and now have a contract that provides benefits and job security.

Like many multi-skilled people with a wide range of interests, Saul Ramos is hard to peg.

He has demonstrated his ability as a paraeducator and union leader within Worcester Public Schools in Massachusetts, and nationally through the National Education Association (NEA). But Ramos has also made an impact directing local art projects and adapting Shakespeare for theaters in various New England communities.

Yet, for all his talents, those who know Ramos best say his greatest accomplishment may be the life-changing effect he had on a single child—a visually impaired kindergartner Ramos worked with from the time the student was in kindergarten right to high school graduation in 2011.

“To give his student every chance to succeed, Saul taught himself Braille,” says Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA).

For 18 years, Ramos has served Burncoat High School. Currently, his work includes transcribing school materials and classwork of visually impaired students into print or Braille, a writing system in which characters are represented by patterns of raised dots that are felt with the fingertips.

In March, Ramos was named the 2017 National Education Association ESP of the Year during the awards banquet at the NEA Education Support Professionals Conference in Dallas. More than 900 school support staff and other educators from across the country participated in the 26th annual conference.

At the event, NEA President Lily Eskelsen García presented Ramos with a trophy, bouquet of roses, and a $10,000 check. The annual award is NEA’s highest for an ESP.

“NEA applauds Saul and his commitment to helping students succeed in the classroom, in school, and in the community,” said Eskelsen García. “He is a shining example of the ESPs who work tirelessly to make great public schools for every student.”

Approximately 2.8 million school support staff work in the nation’s public school systems, and more than 75 percent of ESPs live in the school communities in which they work.

The conference theme, “Uniting, Inspiring, and Leading for the Whole Student,” set the tone for workshops and discussion sessions that were focused upon NEA’s goals and priorities. These include engaging early career educators, racial justice in education, and ensuring that the voices of educators are reflected in implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

“Saul is a symbol of just how essential ESPs are to meeting the needs of the whole student,” Madeloni wrote in her recommendation letter to the ESP of the Year Selection Committee. “Saul’s level of commitment is also reflected in his union involvement at the local, state, and national levels.”

Ramos is a member of four MTA committees: ESP, ethnic minority affairs, bylaws and rules, and the Equal Opportunity Council, which he serves as vice chair.

An advocate for English language learners and special education students, including the visually impaired, he was honored last year as an MTA Red Sox Most Valuable Educator at Fenway Park during a professional baseball game.

Within NEA, Ramos is a member of the Paraeducator Institute Work Group, and the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Committee. He is also the northeast regional director of the Hispanic Caucus.

Ramos is a recent graduate of the prestigious ESP Leaders for Tomorrow program. He mentors new ESPs and has attended many national conferences and training sessions as a facilitator.

In Worcester, Ramos helps to “ensure that his students are fully integrated into their school environment as a means for them to become as independent as possible in social and other settings,” Madeloni says.

“I know that with a lot of patience, understanding, and guidance, my students are capable of accomplishing anything any other student can,” Ramos says.

Born in San German, Puerto Rico, Ramos calls himself a “mixture” of his mother’s Spanish heritage, and his father’s roots, which are African and Tanoí (an indigenous people inhabiting the Caribbean and Florida). Ramos’ childhood was spent between Puerto Rico and Worcester, and he graduated from the island’s Laura Mercado High School in 1995.

“I am a passionate advocate for keeping our culture alive and making sure our community, especially our youth, are in touch with their roots and embrace the beauty of it.”

Ramos has created awareness of Latino culture by founding the nonprofit Arte Latino of New England where he serves as artistic director. He is also co-executive director of the Providence Latin American Film Festival in Rhode Island.

The newly elected mayor of Providence recently appointed Ramos to the transition team for education, arts, and culture.

“Art is one of the greatest ways that humans can express their whole spirit,” Ramos says. “I hope that all educators will remember that among their students, they may have a budding artist who should be challenged and motivated to explore their craft.”

Working with the Rhode Island Latino Arts organization in conjunction with the historical ECAS Theater in Providence, Ramos helps to produce Spanish-language and bilingual theater through live performances, workshops, and other forms of cultural expression. Last summer, he adapted into Spanish Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

“We are helping adults and young Latinos discover hidden talents, build self-confidence, and solidify their cultural and individual identity,” Ramos says. “We need Einsteins in this world, but we also need poets, photographers, writers, carpenters, musicians, and painters.”

Fighting the Stigma of Mental Illness?

New Hampshire paraeducator group WORKS TO BOOST understanding of student mental health issues

By John Rosales

Too often, students with mental health concerns suffer alone—their struggles with eating disorders, substance abuse, disruptive behavior, anxiety, or depression cloaked in silence.

“Because of a stigma attached to mental illness, people are afraid to even discuss it much less ask for help,” says Shannon Fuller, president of the Keene Paraprofessionals Association (KPA) in New Hampshire. But avoidance was not something KPA members were willing to allow in their school district or community.

“Our students don’t choose to have mental health problems,” says Fuller, who has been a paraeducator for 18 years, the last four at Symonds Elementary School. “We had to do something.”

Last November, only eight months after they voted to unionize and begin contract negotiations with Keene School District, KPA members won an NEA grant to provide training for 20 members in mental health first aid.

“It’s our first big project as a union,” Fuller says. Union members settled their first contract March 14 with the support of the school board and local voters. In New Hampshire, K–12 public education employee collective bargaining agreements must be approved by union members, board trustees, and citizens. Voters approved the KPA bargaining agreement 254 to 57.

“Paraprofessionals work one on one and in small groups with students,” says Fuller. “We are in a unique position to detect the warning signs and possibly intervene when students are experiencing mental health challenges.”

Fuller and 19 other KPA members recently graduated from the Mental Health First Aid USA public education program coordinated by the Office of Student Wellness Bureau of Special Education, New Hampshire Department of Education.

While participants do not provide therapy or diagnose mental health issues, they learn to listen nonjudgmentally, give reassurance and information, encourage professional help and self-help, and assess for the risk of suicide. The curriculum primarily focuses on support strategies that participants can use to help adolescents and transition-age youth, ages 12 to 18.

“By expanding the number of adults who are certified in mental health first aid, the district will be able to support students, and in the long term improve academic outcomes,” says Kelly Untiet, communications coordinator of the wellness bureau. “By broadening knowledge beyond school counselors and nurses, we are able to use a common language amongst all adults who come into contact with students.”

Untiet says there are tremendous short- and long-term benefits for students, teachers, and parents when schools focus on student’s mental and behavioral health.

“We have seen consistent reductions in office discipline referrals, increased time in the classroom, improved school culture and climate, stronger relationships between families and schools…the list could go on and on,” she says. “By being deliberate and strategic in their approach, schools and their communities produce better results for students and when that happens we all benefit.”

Connecting with Keene

In partnership with the Keene State Initiative American Democracy Project, KPA members recently sponsored a community event for Keene residents. The gathering included mental health care providers and other vendors who set up information booths at the college’s student center. John Broderick, former chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court, made remarks. Fourteen years ago, he was attacked by his 30-year-old son, whose mental illness had been undiagnosed for more than two decades.

“We had a variety of Keene community members in attendance,” says KPA secretary Tammy Judd, a paraeducator at Fuller Elementary School. “They wanted to find out about services in our area and, I think, feel like they are not alone.”

Almost 150 students, parents, educators, business, and government workers turned out. It was billed as the first of several “family nights” that KPA members have planned for the year.

“We sent out flyers across town and talked it up on TV and Facebook,” says Judd. “Based on some of the conversations I had, there were people from support groups who have a child or loved one who’s coping with addiction problems. They learned where to find help.”

Symonds school tutor, Tammy Kuraner, said vendors were sensitive to the stigma of mental health problems and offered pamphlets, bookmarks, and other literature attendees could discreetly slide into their purses and pockets.

“Some of the handouts had a suicide line and address printed on them,” Kuraner says. “There is such a stigma to suicide and mental illness. Parents might not want anyone assuming their child suffers from it.”

The vendors, she says, “respected your privacy and made you feel safe. They weren’t judging you or pushing themselves on you. There’s never been an event like this in our community that I’m aware of.”

They ‘Get Who We Are’

Before Keene paraeducators voted to join NEA-New Hampshire and settled their four-year contract, Judd says she sometimes felt like a “glorified babysitter.” Not anymore.

“We now have a sense of unity and recognition for the job we do,” she says. “We are finally being acknowledged for our contributions to the overall education team.”

Judd says administrators now seem to listen more intently to paraeducators and to support their need for professional development.

“There was money available for us for this purpose before the contract was signed, but nothing seemed to happen with it,” she says. “A line of communication and respect has been established.”

In addition to increased opportunities for training, the paraeducator contract stipulates that their 11 holidays are now considered flextime and can be spread out over the school year beyond the traditional Christmas and spring break periods. Our first contract shows how much the public support us,” says Fuller. “People now seem to get who we are and what we do.”

Alyssa Zalaski has sons in the first and third grades. She is relieved that paraeducators now have a contract that provides benefits and job security.

“They truly care about students and the work they do,” she says. “I take great comfort knowing that people like this are interacting with my children, and others, on a daily basis.”


National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.