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.
“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.
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.”