July 6, 2005, 11:24PM
by JENNIFER RADCLIFFE
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
Rather than taking a break with her students this summer, teacher's aide Yolanda Smith is scrambling to complete a series of online courses so she can keep her job helping autistic children at Will Rogers Elementary School.
Even with 14 years of experience and 38 hours of college credit, Smith is among hundreds of Houston area school employees in danger of being pushed out of low-wage jobs if they don't meet higher employment standards by a federal deadline at the end of the upcoming school year.
The 47-year-old is determined to keep her job.
"I'm going to finish. It's necessary," she said. "I love working with children. That's what I do."
To keep their jobs at schools that receive certain types of federal funding, most teachers' aides, special education assistants and other types of "paraprofessionals" must have two years of college or complete an equivalent type of training.
Even though the deadline to meet those standards was extended from January until the end of the 2005-06 school year, hundreds of workers still haven't cleared the bar. If they don't meet the deadline next May, area schools could be left with droves of vacancies in some of their lowest-paying, hardest-to-fill positions.
"There's a whole lot of people who don't have it," said Helen Wheatley, chief of staff for the Houston Federation of Teachers. "They're just going to leave. I'm sure that's what's going to happen. They're going to lose all of these people with all of those skills."
In Aldine Independent School District, for example, 402 of 1,061 teachers' aides still need to prove that they have finished the college hours or completed the alternative training by the end of the school year.
In the Houston Independent School District, 952 teachers' aides meet the higher standard. Another 2,017 paraprofessionals are enrolled in a free online district course that also satisfies the requirement, but HISD officials couldn't specify how many paraprofessionals the district has and how many of them need to meet the requirement to avoid being reassigned.
"We've been really working hard trying to get the word out," HISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra said.
The national push toward standardized tests and increased academic performance has prompted teachers to rely more heavily on paraprofessionals in the last decade. Rather than just serving as classroom helpers, many aides are viewed as frontline instructors who can tutor children and offer extra assistance to teachers, Wheatley said.
Because of their evolving role, lawmakers opted to include the higher employment standards in No Child Left Behind, the federal education legislation signed by President Bush in January 2002.
Paraprofessionals who don't meet the requirements must be moved to non-instructional duties, such as front-office or cafeteria jobs. They won't be allowed to help tutor, manage classrooms or assist in computer labs at campuses that receive so-called federal "Title I" funding, which is used to help educate economically disadvantaged students.
Some leaders said that requiring these workers, most of whom earn less than $20,000 a year, to take additional coursework or classes is unfair. Many of these employees haven't attended schools in decades and took jobs as paraprofessionals to have the same work hours as their school-aged children.
"Asking for two years of college is insane. It's a lousy idea," said Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers.
Others see the possible benefits of the higher standards. Even though Smith is struggling to meet the requirement, she plans to use it as a starting point to become a full-fledged teacher.
She worries, though, that some of the older workers won't be able to complete the online classes or finish the work in time. Most only have high school diplomas and don't have computers at home, she said.
HISD "should have had books. They should have had more one-on-one. They should have had people to come in a classroom setting to make sure you got this," she said.
The district's online courses cover reading, math, technology, classroom management and special education skills. Employees must earn a score of 85 percent on five of seven tests to earn a certificate.
HISD officials said mentors are available on each campus to help paraprofessionals who may still be learning English study for the test.
Rennette Brown, chairwoman of the Houston Federation of Teachers' paraprofessional task force, said she fears some of the district's most dedicated employees might be scared off by the requirements.
Many teaching assistants may opt to retire early or to pursue higher-paying jobs that have lower hiring standards.
"I hope we don't lose any of the good aides because of it. The people who may suffer would be the kids," said Brown, an aide at Jones High School, who completed the requirement a few years ago.
The higher standard isn't a factor for many affluent school districts, where the bulk of campuses don't receive Title I funding. In the Katy school district, for example, only three schools are subject to the law. At those schools, 21 of the 22 paraprofessionals already met the bar.
"It's great that they extended the deadline, but we would have met it by January," said Steve Stanford, communications coordinator for Katy ISD.
Pete Stewart, director of human resources for the Aldine school district, said he thinks most employees will meet the standard by May.
"I feel confident that they will," he said. "We have sent out written communication to each of the teachers' aides reminding them that this is a requirement and they're taking care of it."