Among the more than 1,000 paraprofessionals who attended the UFT’s 36th annual Paraprofessional Festival and Awards Luncheon on March 18, there was a common theme: a love for the work they do.
“I work with special education students, and it’s the best,” said Nancy Schwartz, the paraprofessional representative at PS 100 in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, and a luncheon regular. “I learn from them as much as they learn from me. I just love working with children.”
Paraprofessionals Chapter Leader Shelvy Young-Abrams paid tribute to the rich history of the chapter in a rousing address in the ballroom of the New York Hilton in Midtown Manhattan.
“When paraprofessionals first began to work in the school system, we did so with no benefits, a pay scale that was inhumane and working conditions that were criminal,” she said. “We fought to organize, and we see the fruits of that labor in this room.”
UFT President Michael Mulgrew noted the importance of the work paraprofessionals do with students with disabilities. “Why is New York City outperforming everyone in students with special needs? Because we have 29,000 paras who are making it happen,” he said.
A centerpiece of the event each year is the honoring of the Paraprofessionals of the Year, who are nominated by their colleagues. This year’s 14 paras were singled out for their commitment to their schools, their communities and their union. Ann Marie Glover, a paraprofessional at PS 29 in Staten Island, received the Humanitarian of the Year Award.
At the conclusion of the event, Young-Abrams presented a special surprise award to Melba Perry, the treasurer of the UFT Paraprofessionals Chapter, for her 50 years of service as a member of the chapter and her “unwavering commitment to the union.”
New York City Council Finance Committee Chair Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who gave the keynote address, spoke about being mentored by former Queens borough president Helen Marshall, who recently passed away.“She invested in me at the age of 12, and now I hold the seat on the City Council that she had,” Ferreras-Copeland said. “What she did for me and what you do for young people is to say not only ‘Be like me,’ but ‘Be better than me.’ You know that investing in children is like investing in the future.”
The paraprofessionals spent the morning attending two workshops of their choice. In a workshop on the personal biases and identities that shape educators’ perceptions, paraprofessionals engaged in a spirited discussion about racism and micro-aggressions in school.
“The workshop definitely helped me become more aware of my surroundings and what we say to kids,” said Julissa Cruz, a paraprofessional at PS 9 in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.Nazia Afroz, Wahida Barvin and Shashi Kumar, paraprofessionals at P255 at 151, a District 75 site in Astoria, Queens, said a math workshop had taught them how to use games to engage their low-functioning students.
“They’ll think it’s a game, not just learning math,” said Barvin as she participated in a round of “Trash Can Math,” a game designed to help students learn about place order.
Rosa del Rosario, who was attending the event for the first time, noted that as a crisis paraprofessional at PS 132 in Washington Heights, she learns something new every day about student behavior. Echoing the sentiment of many paraprofessionals that day, del Rosario said she was grateful for the opportunity to learn more.
“We need to learn new strategies to work well with our students,” she said.