In her role as a paraeducator, Cynthia Ross-Zweig has helped kids learn to read and write, she’s prepped for SATs, and lately, she’s been learning to use a bandsaw.

“We really do everything,” Ross-Zweig said.

She works at New Fairfield High School, is the Connecticut State Employees Paraeducator Council president and is a member of the Paraeducator Advisory Council. She’s also helping make a jewelry box in shop class.

Paraeducators serve many roles and often work with students with various disabilities. But training for the role can vary by school district, Ross-Zweig said. Some districts have it, and others don’t.

“I strongly feel that the training we get should be universal and unified across the state,” she said.

She’d like to see more training aimed at understanding individualized special education plans or de-escalation in particular.

Legislators have introduced a bill, which Ross-Zweig supports, that would require professional development for paraeducators and start the process of creating a professional certification process for the role, among other measures.

Cynthia Ross-Zweig has worked as a paraeducator for 15 years. Her role varies depending on classes, from helping students with learning disabilities one to one to supporting a large class. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Paraeducators assist teachers or therapists at school, often working one-on-one with children who need extra help in the classroom. They aren’t required to have a particular certificate or permit, although many have college degrees.

House Bill 5321 passed through the Education Committee last month and through the Appropriations Committee on Thursday. The role has also gotten official recognition this week from Gov. Ned Lamont and the state Board of Education.

Supporters say it would help improve the position of paraeducator so they can better assist students. The bill is based in part on recommendations from the School Paraeducator Advisory Council.

There was little opposition to the bill in public testimony, although one person said it should include more recommendations from the advisory council. Department of Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker also asked that the timeline for creating and implementing the professional development be extended past July 1, 2023.

The bill would require local boards of education to provide at least 18 hours of professional development to paraeducators. The boards would each have to establish a “professional development and evaluation committee.”

Cynthia Ross-Zweig helps a student in an art class at New Fairfield High School. She wants to see consistent and highly qualified training offered to paraeducators across the state. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

The Department of Education commissioner would also be required to create a working group that would make recommendations to build a professional certification for paraeducators. In addition, the department would have to annually review health care plan options for paraeducators and submit a report.

Paraeducators could also be part of any planning meetings for the children they’re working with, at the request of the parent or guardian. And school boards would need to report information about paraeducators such as job titles, hourly pay rates and hours worked to the Department of Education.

This would help them better understand the Individualized Education Programs designed for the children they work with, supporters said in public testimony.

Jennifer McLarney, a paraeducator at Birch Grove Primary School in Tolland, said in an interview that often paraeducators who work closely with children with disabilities get information second-hand about their education programs.

“I think it’ll provide more legitimacy to being a paraeducator, and people will realize that this really can be a long-term career choice,” McLarney said of the bill.

McLarney has been a paraeducator since her youngest child was in first grade – about 10 years. She fell in love with the job after she started and began to think of it as a career. The role has become particularly important since the COVID-19 pandemic, she added.

Many students, particularly those who need extra help, fell behind when they were learning remotely, she said. Paraeducators are helping to bridge those gaps.

“I just find that to start on the same page would be so vital in our paraeducator community,” McLarney said of the training. “It would be great if we had started with a more even playing field … H.B. 5321 is just the first step.”

Ginny Monk is the Children's Issues and Housing Reporter at CT Mirror, covering topics ranging from education and child welfare to affordable housing and zoning.  Ginny grew up in Arkansas and graduated from the University of Arkansas’ Lemke School of Journalism in 2017.  She began her career at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette where she covered housing, homelessness, juvenile justice, and investigations.  Along the way Ginny was awarded a 2019 Data Fellowship through the Annenberg Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California. She moved to Connecticut in 2021 and covered housing for Hearst CT.