At the 41st annual Paraprofessionals Festival & Awards Luncheon on March 25, paraprofessionals celebrated the many rights they have gained since their chapter’s founding in 1969, and the trailblazers who led the way, while acknowledging there is much more to do.
A 2021 state law that established automatic enrollment of paraprofessionals in the Teachers’ Retirement System was one major advancement. The “to do” list includes being recognized as integral members of the educational faculty in schools and having professional learning opportunities tailored to their role.
“We’re going to get those things done together because the heart of the paraprofessional is a heart that beats strong and a heart that beats loud,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in his address. “What you do each and every day in our school system most people could never accomplish.”
The UFT Teacher Center is developing a training series for paraprofessionals since the Department of Education’s professional development has been lacking, Mulgrew announced, sparking loud cheers and applause.
The theme of the event at the New York Hilton Midtown was “Remembering the Past as We Embrace the Future.” Paras attended workshops on working with children with autism, making the shift from difficult to productive conversations, developing a positive mindset and other topics. They also had fun eating cotton candy and playing fling the frog and other games at a carnival. Students from five career and technical education high schools provided services such as blood pressure readings and manicures.
Paraprofessional Marlon Lett received the Humanitarian Award for leading community service projects, coaching sports teams and connecting with and empowering students at PS 128 in the Bronx. The rapport he builds with young African American male students enables him to successfully intervene when they experience challenges in school, said PS 128 Chapter Leader Jocelyn Brown.
“Every day when I go through those doors, I know I could make a difference and, in turn, those kids have saved me in many ways,” Lett said.
Interim Acting Paraprofessionals Chapter Chair Priscilla Castro said paras want “true professional development, not cookie cutters,” and more support in their work.
“One thing we know for sure, the DOE cannot do the work without the voice of the paraprofessionals,” she said to a cheering crowd. “We as a collective are all in this together.”
Castro presented three inaugural awards honoring past and present union leaders: American Federation of Teachers Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus, a former UFT vice president and para; former Paraprofessionals Chapter Chair Shelvy Young-Abrams; and former 1st Vice Chair Reginald Colvin. Young-Abrams and Colvin retired in 2022 after decades of service.
DeJesus, who received the Maria Portalatin Award, paid tribute to its namesake in her keynote. Portalatin was a “tireless advocate” who helped found the chapter and fought for fair wages, benefits and working conditions. She led a march to City Hall in the 1970s and told Mayor Abe Beame that members would not leave until their demands were met. “And they won,” DeJesus said.
“It’s crucial for all of us to honor those who opened the doors for us, to keep carrying the torch, to keep opening doors for those who come after us — the next generation,” she said.
Young-Abrams received the inaugural Velma Hill Award, named for the activist who signed the first paraprofessional contract in 1970, and Colvin was honored with the Shelvy Young-Abrams Award.
Jessica Huggins, a paraprofessional at PS 185 in Manhattan who was one of 14 other rank-and-file honorees, spoke of her passion for education. “I really love watching kids as they’re learning,” she said. “When they finally get something, that little twinkle in their eye, I love that.”
New York State Assemblyman Khaleel Anderson of Queens, a guest speaker, said he was a troubled District 75 student who, with the help of many paraprofessionals, ultimately transferred to general education in high school, graduated in 2014, went to college and was elected to the State Assembly in 2020.
“When you talk about fighters, fighters for change, fighters who are looking to invest in young people, it’s you,” he told the paras in the audience. “You all will continue to sow the seed of the young person when so many of us are written off.”