Thanks to a union-backed partnership, several Buffalo teacher aides have completed training to become state-certified teaching assistants.
It wasn’t an easy feat. It took two years of after-school community college classes and plenty of support and determination along the way.
“The program was awesome,” said Serma Nezha, who has worked 14 years in Buffalo schools as a cafeteria worker and most recently a teacher aide.
Nezha, who was an elementary teacher in her native Albania for 20 years before coming to the United States, said the program also boosted her English skills tremendously. She gave a special shout-out to Erie Community College English Professor Jim Oliverio, who attended the group’s graduation. “Wow, I learned so much!” Nezha said.
“It was a lot more involved than we thought it would be but we learned a lot in the process,” said Melinda MacPherson-Sullivan, director of the Buffalo Teacher Center. At one time, the city district provided such training, but after that ended, union leaders stepped up to fill the void for interested members.
With many districts experiencing a shortage of teaching assistants, MacPherson-Sullivan teamed up with Andy Sako, president of the Faculty Federation of Erie Community College and a NYSUT Board member, to put together the pilot pathway program. “It started out as a conversation at a union conference,” Sako said. “It was a union-to-union effort that turned into a much-needed program.”
Initially Sako and MacPherson-Sullivan were targeting entry-level teaching assistants to become state-certified Level III teaching assistants, but they found more interest from teacher aides.
Melinda MacPherson-Sullivan, director of the Buffalo Teacher Center. Photo provided.
The key was providing Erie Community College courses directly at the Buffalo Teacher Center to make it more convenient for participants. “These were classes twice a week, right after school or bus duty — so it was easier for them to come to the teacher center than to travel out to the community college,” MacPherson-Sullivan said. “For some, transportation was a major issue.”
Under the arrangement, ECC offered half-price tuition and the teacher center supplied a location, books, and a $100 stipend if participants finished a course with a “C” or above. The pilot offered other resources and support as well. For those who had trouble passing entrance or placement exams, ECC faculty provided tutoring in math and English language arts. Some needed training in things like using a computer and email. MacPherson-Sullivan worked closely with Robin Capasso, who coordinates ECC’s teaching assistant program and helped participants with registration, transcripts and finances.
In order to apply for Level III teaching assistant certification, participants must complete 18 hours of collegiate study. ECC provided a combination of courses in math, English, child psychology, and “The Para-educator as a member of the Educational Team.” In addition, participants received help preparing for the NYS Assessment of Teaching Assistant Skills (ATAS) certification exam.
The pilot group started with about a dozen participants, with seven graduating earlier this month, MacPherson-Sullivan said. “There are so many hurdles,” she said. “Our goal is to do everything we can to help them finish.”
From here, graduates will be able to apply for teaching assistant openings in Buffalo, or other school districts, Sako said. If they remain as teacher aides, they would be eligible for an immediate salary upgrade, he said. Teaching assistants earn a higher salary and are eligible for the state Teachers’ Retirement System.
The seven graduates, all members of the Buffalo Education Support Team (BEST) union led by Joann Sweat, were recognized at a Buffalo City Schools Board of Education meeting earlier this month. The superintendent noted how important it is for paraprofessionals to have career ladder opportunities.
MacPherson-Sullivan is working on plans to continue the program next school year. "I think it showcases what local unions can do when they put their heads together to reach a common goal,” she said.
“I think there’s a lot of interest out there for programs like this,” Sako said. “We’d like to see it expanded.”