Bilingual paraeducators bridge gap between student, teacher

Districts see enormous potential to help turn paraeducators into teachers

(Lea este artículo en español.)

Paraeducators support teachers with classroom instruction and management. But as the number of students whose first language is not English grows, paraeducators who are bilingual can find themselves in another role: translator.

That’s been the case for Gami Diaz Lizama, a paraeducator in Highline Public Schools in Des Moines who speaks English and Spanish. He said bilingual paraeducators — often referred to as “paras” — help English-only teachers better connect with and inspire all of their students.

“Paraeducators are there to be the support for teachers, students and families, especially bilingual paras when it comes to a student and family that just came to the school and that only speak a certain language,” he said. “We speak the language (and are) there to help that bond.”

Bilingual skills are highly valued and sought after by school districts as they work to ensure public educators better reflect the diversity of their communities.

Washington has more than 1 million students in kindergarten through 12th-grade, and for nearly 11 percent of them, English is their second language, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Bernard Koontz, Highline’s executive director of language learning and teacher development, said he doesn’t just want to recruit bilingual paraeducators. He wants them to eventually become teachers.

“Our end goal is that we create a pipeline of teachers,” Koontz said. “The ideal outcome would an education experience that embraces who students are so they can fully realize their potential, and students seeing themselves in the curriculum and in the adults teaching them.”

Bernard Koontz, left, executive director of language learning and teacher development for Highline Public Schools, and paraeducator Gami Diaz Lizama, who works in the district’s Midway Elementary School in Des Moines, say hiring more paraeducators who are bilingual helps better connect teachers with dual-language students, and that those bilingual paraeducators are often encouraged to become teachers. (Official Governor’s Office photo)

The idea of getting more bilingual educators into the workforce was highlighted in a 2016 report by New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. According to the report, one in five paraeducators nationwide speaks a language other than English at home.

“These paraprofessionals frequently have the linguistic and cultural competencies their schools need, as well as considerable instructional and educational experience,” the report says. “If schools can get more of them to the front of their classrooms, they can considerably improve how young (dual language learners) are served.”

Innovative ways to turn paraeducators into teachers

In Washington, becoming a paraeducator requires a high school diploma or equivalent, two years of college or an associate degree, and either passing an entrance exam or completing a Washington paraeducators portfolio or apprenticeship program. School districts may have further requirements.

Some districts in Washington offer programs to encourage paraeducators to become teachers, such as the Woodring Highline Future Bilingual Teacher Fellows program. The fellowship, a collaboration between Western Washington University and the Highline school district enrolls about 15 educators and was recently spotlighted by the national magazine Slate and in The Seattle Times.

Koontz was given the chance to show off the program during Gov. Jay Inslee’s back-to-school tour in September 2016. Inslee met students who were positively impacted by having a paraeducator who speaks their language and identifies with their culture. Inslee also learned more about the district’s dual-language programs in Spanish and Vietnamese. Having that support leads to better academic and social outcomes, educators told the governor.

Koontz says paraeducators in the district were once an untapped resource.

“We were missing an opportunity,” Koontz said. “While we were working really hard with high school students who were new arrivals to get proficient in English, we were ignoring this whole other resource they had.”

As Washington schools work to recruit a diverse workforce, they also are working to retain new teachers, some of whom leave the profession within their first few years. Part of the teacher-retention strategy includes better starting salaries for teachers and connecting new teachers with mentors.

More funding for paraeducators and encouraging paraeducators to become teachers is also part of the solution.

Gov. Jay Inslee visits Mount View Elementary School in the Highline Public Schools district during his 2016 back-to-school tour. The school district offers the Bilingual Teacher Fellows program to its paraeducators. (Official Governor’s Office photo)

Inslee’s latest budget proposal, released last year, sought to expand the paraeducator program by 360 new positions, with priority given to the preparation of bilingual educators. The Legislature did not provide funding for that request.

New state paraeducator board

State lawmakers did, however, pass House Bill 1115, which created the nine-person Washington Paraeducator Board, administered by the Professional Educator Standards Board. The board’s authority focuses on paraeducator standards, training and career advancement. The bill also created training standards for paraeducators and scholarships.

Inslee signed the bill into law earlier this year.

Much of the legislation was based on recommendations made by the Professional Educator Standards Board’s Paraeducator Work Group, which convened in 2014 to define standards and develop professional pathways for paraeducation careers and certification.

The paraeducator board will meet for the first time on Wednesday in Spokane. The public can attend the meeting virtually or in person. For a link to the board materials, visit the paraeducator board website.

In Washington, there are also a few alternative routes offered to people who want to become teachers and who already have some education experience or a college degree. Alternative routes often appeal to people who want to stay in their communities, making them a particularly effective strategy for recruiting and retaining teachers who more accurately represent their students. Those who qualify include classified school employees who already have an associates or bachelor’s degree, people with bachelor’s degrees who are seeking a career change, and certified substitute teachers with bachelor’s degrees.

Diaz Lizama said he wants to become a teacher in the Highline district and is one of the district’s future bilingual teacher fellows. That means that in addition to working as a paraeducator, he takes education courses through WWU’s Woodring College of Education to earn his teaching certificate.

He said the fellowship allows him to immediately apply what he learns through his college coursework to his paraeducator duties in the classroom at Midway Elementary School.

Diaz Lizama said his role as a paraeducator is wide-ranging, adding: “It’s kind of like that glue that helps where it is needed.”

His favorite part of the job is watching a student have a “lightbulb moment” — finally understanding a concept — which can be harder to come by if there’s a language or cultural barrier between the student and teacher.

Diaz Lizama also serves as a family liaison at his school, where he is able to build trust between non-English-speaking families and the education system.

In one example, he recalled a Spanish-speaking family visiting the school office.

“I heard them struggling, trying to say what they needed, so I was able to instantly turn around and start explaining in Spanish, just talking to them like normal,” he said. “You just see their faces change, like, ‘You speak the same language I do.’”