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Feature Article

Utah Paraeducator Named 2024 ESP of the Year

Jen Bramson is dedicated to fighting inequities for her students and improving the lives of education support professionals everywhere.
Jen Bramson
Utah paraeducator Jen Bramson accepts the 2024 Education Support Professional of the Year Award on March 23, 2024.
Published: March 24, 2024

Jen Bramson, an early childhood paraeducator in Park City, Utah, has been named the 2024 NEA Education Support Professional (ESP) of the Year. Bramson received the award on March 23 at the 2024 ESP National Conference in Las Vegas.  

An exceptional educator, union activist, and leader, Bramson works with preschool students at McPolin Elementary School, a Title 1 school with a diverse student population, a dual language program of Spanish and English, and strong community involvement. 

Bramson, who struggled with ADHD and dyslexia as a student, knew from an early age that she wanted to help students recognize their strengths and learn how to learn.

“[Jen] does all she can to help her students create a sturdy educational foundation that will help them to persevere through school. .. and throughout their lives,” NEA President Becky Pringle said in presenting Bramson with the award. “She makes sure English learners reach benchmarks and works with the Special Education department to provide students with interventions. To improve her ability to understand and guide her students, she has also taken behavior technician training, and collects data to get Individualized Education Plans for students who need them before they begin kindergarten.”

Bramson is also a union leader, activist, and skilled lobbyist who has spent countless days raising awareness among elected leaders about ESP needs and contributions

“We are making changes every day, we are demanding what we need for our students, for public education, for education support professionals, and teachers,” Bramson said in her remarks. “We are showing up locally, nationally, and with our states.”

As ESP of the Year, Bramson will serve as an ambassador for ESPs across the country, speaking about their work and importance  at local, state, and national events. 

Finding Solutions for Learning Challenges

Known for the Sundance Film Festival and expensive ski resorts, Park City is an enclave of the super wealthy. It’s also home to the working people who keep the international tourist destination running. 

“My class is made up of children who haven’t had the same opportunities, and they enter preschool on an uneven playing field,” Bramson says. “I scaffold lessons to the individual child’s needs.” 

Creative problem-solving is a hallmark of Bramson’s work.

Last year, a student joined Bramson's class after being kicked out of a previous day care. The young girl had boundless energy during quiet time and almost no impulse control. Bramson worked with a special education teacher to develop a plan.

During whole group, the girl would jump on the trampoline. Other times, she would sit in the quiet area so she could reset before the next activity. She was given a wobbly stool and also the choice to stand if she wanted, and they played games like Operation and Jenga to practice self-control.

“Jen’s talents really shine when she encounters a student with learning, social-emotional, health issues, or difficulties at home,” says fellow preschool educator Laura Holbrook-Jorgensen. “She approaches these challenges with fresh thinking and is always open to trying something new for the benefit of her students.”

Speaking Our for School Staff

Bramson’s innovative thinking is helping her get more resources for the rural schools in her district, including her own elementary school. 

As a board member of the Utah School Employee Association, representing ESPs across the state, she is developing a pilot program to bring seven rural district associations together to form a coalition. 

“We understand that rural districts have different needs and, using surveys, we are finding out what those needs are to customize support,” she says. 

In her board role, Bramson will also embark on a listening tour to interview paraeducators across the state. 

“I am the paraeducator representative, … and I hear from other paras that they are in crisis and leaving the profession in record numbers,” she says. “Paras are asking for training to keep themselves and their students physically and mentally safe. They need help negotiating for fair pay and professional respect.” 

She hopes to create a statewide communication channel with these para groups, so they can discuss what trainings they need, get help with negotiations, share information, and plan group trips to the state capital to share their stories with legislators and ask for their support. 

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Bramson has spent many “Educator Days” on Salt Lake City’s Capitol Hill, raising awareness about ESP needs and contributions, and challenging representatives to “actually read the bills.” 

In Utah, ESPs are still referred to as “classified employees.” Bramson has been looking for a lawmaker who will sponsor legislation to officially change this job title to education support professionals. 

“I want people to understand that we are skilled professionals dedicated to our craft,” she says. Among her fans is Gina Cox, a Park City school bus driver and president of the Park City Classified Employees Association (PCCEA). “A respectful disagreement with Jen often turns into a productive work session,” Cox says. “She is resolute in her beliefs but humble enough to see others’ point of view. She can introduce uncomfortable subject matter in a way that is palatable and encourages the people around her to embrace the opportunity to make necessary changes.” 

Bramson served with Cox on the negotiating team representing ESPs in her district. They conducted a job study in collaboration with the district and discovered that district wages weren’t competitive, leaving schools critically short-staffed. 

The team was able to negotiate a significant raise for ESPs, bringing the lowest paid position to $20 dollars per hour and raising all steps by $8 an hour. They also negotiated the same 16 percent raise that the teachers received. 

“This has been a life-changing raise for the ESPs in my district,” Bramson explains. “We have heard that members have been able to quit second jobs and have postponed retirement to earn higher Social Security. One woman was able to save her house, and many more have said that they feel valued.” 

Bramson says, “Improving the lives of my fellow ESPs is my why.” 

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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.