- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 2004

BALTIMORE (AP) — Sandra Davis quizzed students huddled around her on dates and times, a part of life that doesn’t come easily for developmentally disabled children.

And when 7-year-old Darryl Washington got his birthday right after a year of trying, using a yardstick to correctly point out Nov. 9 on the calendar, Miss Davis shouted in joy.

Miss Davis is among roughly 1 million people in the nation’s classrooms who strive for such breakthrough moments with students — but she’s not a teacher.

Rather, she’s a teacher’s aide, a job that’s become such a major part of instruction that Congress is ordering aides to prove their quality and experience — just as teachers must.

Since the 1950s, when aides were recruited for clerical work, their role has become a hybrid of teaching and lesson planning, along with supervising the playground and cafeteria.

Often assigned to help students with disabilities and limited-English learners, aides also have gained a presence in mainstream classes. They work with students individually and in groups, reinforce the teacher’s lessons and help keep class in order.

Three decades ago, schools used to have 35 teachers for every teacher’s aide. The ratio is now lower than 5-to-1, as the number of full-time and part-time aides has almost doubled.

Yet aides still lack clear identity, right down to the various names they go by, including paraprofessional and para-educator. Walk into some classrooms and it is not obvious which instructor is in the lead role and which one likely does not have a teaching degree.

“There’s little understanding about the level of intricacy of the work that they do,” Tish Olshefski, a paraprofessional specialist at the American Federation of Teachers, said about instructional aides. “There is this misconception that all they do is shuffle papers.”

Not at Rosemont Elementary in Baltimore, where Miss Davis works with special-needs students.

Earlier this month, Miss Davis led a lesson for most of the students about understanding the calendar. That allowed the teacher to pull aside two students who weren’t as advanced at word recognition and needed to work with a soft calendar they could touch.

In some cases nationwide, the blurring of the teaching line has led to trouble, with untrained aides put in charge of classes.

Congress sought to draw a firm line under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. Under the law, paraprofessionals are to play supporting roles, remain in proximity to teachers and refrain from introducing new content to students, the Education Department has told schools.

The law also set higher qualifications for instructional aides, many of whom never got a college degree and typically get paid $15,000 to $24,000 for full-time work.

To keep their jobs, aides in schools that receive federal poverty aid have until January 2006 to compile at least two years of college study or earn at least an associate’s degree.

Their other option is to pass a test proving their knowledge of reading, writing and math and their ability to help teach those topics. Newly hired aides must have such qualifications before they can get the jobs.

Miss Davis, the Baltimore aide, has passed a test that will allow her to stay in class. And in her 15th year in her school system, she has no interest in pursuing a teaching degree.

“When teachers go home, they have to take it home,” she said. “When I go home, I can leave it here.”

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