ESPs Go Beyond the Call of Duty
Support Professionals' dedication to students comes through in their generosity.
By John Rosales
Lynn Witts kicked off last school year by spending about $150 of her own money on paper, pencils, pens, and other supplies for students at Polson High School in Montana.
“The budget cuts have hurt my kids—someone has to fill in the gaps,” says Witts, a paraeducator at Polson for more than 20 years.
Education support professionals (ESPs) like Witts often fill in where financially strapped parents and school districts cannot. More than 60 percent of ESPs give money out of their own pockets to help students with classroom materials, field trips, lunch money, and class projects.
Paraeducators Carl Gray from Mississippi and Kay Hansen from Wisconsin are known to buy clothing and school supplies for students at the elementary schools where they work. Bilingual instructional assistant Elizabeth Enriquez from Washington, called “Miss Lisa” by students, is popular among Spanish-speaking parents at her school for buying their children books that help improve their English language skills.
On average, ESPs contribute $163 a year to students, according to a survey by NEA Research. The survey reveals that, like teachers, ESPs give both money and personal time to students in need. For example, 24 percent of ESPs volunteer to teach or support art and musical activities and athletics. Another 24 percent of ESPs coach or support sports programs without compensation.
Because Witts sees so many students around her who lack the basics and have to forgo any extras, she will spend another $40 or so per month during the school year to help students buy food and clothing, and, later, prom tickets and senior photos.
“I work with students who have significant financial issues,” she says. “They can’t pay attention in class if they are cold and hungry.”
Similarly, Kay Hansen, a special education paraeducator at Wisconsin’s Denmark Early Childhood Center and Denmark Elementary School, brings students gifts and postcards from vacations and business trips. As a member of NEA’s board of directors, Hansen often attends meetings at NEA headquarters in Washington, D.C.
“They just devour any information about the White House, the Capitol building, or the Lincoln Memorial,” says Hansen. “After one of my trips, I came home and suggested we write a letter to President Obama. They were so thrilled when the president replied,” she says of her class of five-year-olds. “It was such a great learning experience!”
In addition to inspiring souvenirs, Hansen also donates coats, gloves, and hats to students. Some are intended for needy families while others are for the school to store for weather emergencies when students are caught unprotected. Several years ago, she also established a day when teachers and ESPs in Denmark volunteer to manage a Salvation Army kettle during the holidays.
In Jackson, Mississippi, Carl Gray goes beyond the call of duty at Lake Elementary School by serving as a scoutmaster to Cub Scout Lake Lions Pack 203.
“I spend time with students outside of working hours going to scout meetings and campouts,” says Gray, a member of the Jackson Association of Educators. “In order for children to learn, they need to be exposed to a variety of environments and experiences.”
In addition to the Scouts program, Gray works with students through church and social organizations. “Some families are not equipped financially to provide their children with everything necessary to succeed,” he says. “ESPs know the demands on our children. That is why we (ESPs) need to be full partners in their education—beyond our daily work.”
Witts, too, believes in going beyond the call of duty. When she is not helping students with homework and college scholarship applications, she is rooting for them at athletic events, concerts, and speech contests.
“High school is a time of huge development, not only scholastically, but emotionally as well,” she says. “Students are making lifelong decisions and the whole team of parents and school staff need to give them support and guidance to help them choose the right path.”