Feature stories

Climbing the career ladder

Program permits paras to ‘unlock their potential’

Timisha Harvell was working in a law firm when she decided to become a para.Jonathan FickiesTimisha Harvell was working in a law firm when she decided to become a para. “My mindset was that maybe I can reach the children before they get into the criminal justice system,” she said. “I noticed I created a different kind of bond with them that they didn’t have with other adults.” She used the Career Training Program to continue her education. After nine years as a para at PS 81 in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, she’s now a school counselor there. “Not many places pay for credits and give you release time for travel,” Harvell said. “It was a big thing because as a mom with two small children and working full time, it’s hard.”

For many low-income workers, the most formidable barrier to higher-paying, more stable jobs is the cost of a college education.

That barrier is scaled by the UFT Paraprofessional Chapter’s career ladder, officially called the Career Training Program, a benefit fought for and won by the UFT in the first DOE-UFT paraprofessional contract in 1969. Through it, the city’s Department of Education funds up to 12 college credits a year and provides release time for paras to attend school.

Paraprofessional's Union Proud logo

“Paras who got their BAs and their associate degrees, to see them march up to get certification by the union was really something to behold,” recalls Velma Hill, the first chair of the UFT’s Paraprofessionals Chapter, about the program’s early graduates.

Current Chapter Chair Shelvy Young-Abrams says paras continue to take advantage of the program and alumni have gone on to become principals, superintendents, politicians and every category of educator over the years. “We launched the career ladder to help them unlock their potential to be anything they want to be,” she said.

UFT Vice President for Education Evelyn DeJesus and District 75 Representative David Doorga, for instance, both used the Career Training Program to pay for college to become teachers and later take on their union posts.

Over the last 10 years, 15,694 paras have participated in the program at 26 colleges, and 11,491 are still working for the DOE. Among those, 2,647 have earned a BA degree and 152 have gone on to become teachers. Any UFT para who does not have a bachelor’s degree at the time of employment may participate. And paras with bachelor’s degrees who need education courses for a teaching license may also use the program.

Israel Bonet, now a special education teacher at PS 127 in East Elmhurst, Queens, used the career ladder to attain his bachelor’s degree while working full time as a para.

“There wasn’t a college fund set aside even though I came from a good, middle class household,” says Bonet, who was a para for 16 years before becoming a teacher six years ago. “We had to do it from scratch, and that was the best way for me. You work and go to school part time, and I took out a little loan to hurry up and finish my classes.”

His goal is to become a school counselor or school psychologist. “I’m still working my way there. I got my feet wet as a teacher and I want to keep progressing,” Bonet said.

Elaine Taylor, a paraprofessional for 16 years, is now an attendance teacher,Jonathan FickiesElaine Taylor, a paraprofessional for 16 years, is now an attendance teacher, thanks to the Career Training Program. “I took full advantage of the career ladder,” said Taylor, who works at PS 279 in the Morris Heights section of the Bronx, where she also lives. “I started off taking six credits per semester. But then I became so excited about moving up the career ladder, I started taking  ve classes per semester. I was in class every day including Sunday.” For Taylor, her advancement was a model for others. She was eager to make strides so “people like me — children who come from my community and who never thought they could go to college” — would see they could have the same opportunities. Taylor feels she’s “making a great impact” doing middle school choice counseling, attendance counseling and outreach in the homes of truants. “Every skill I have now, I’ve adapted from my early years,” she said. “Everything I learned then, I am still using.”

As a school aide, Sandra Thompson worked in the copy room next to the principal’s office and a school secretary often enlisted her help. Then she became a para at PS 272 in Brooklyn, a position that meant more money and better benefits.

For 15 years, she helped in the office when the school secretary was absent. “On my lunch hour, I learned how to do ATS,” said Thompson. “I could key the numbers in real fast.”

When the school secretary retired, her principal asked if she’d like to be the pupil account secretary. So Thompson used the union’s career ladder to get her associate’s degree and took the job in 2012.

Though she’s no longer in a classroom, Thompson still works with students. “I have a rapport with most of them and they eat their lunch here,” she said. “One student was having problems with math, so I said to sit beside me and I would help. You know you never really get away from being a para.”

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