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Teachers' aides vital in first year of school

By ERNEST HOOPER
Published May 26, 2005


My son Ethan finishes his final year at Valrico Elementary today. All week, I've been thinking back to his first days as a wide-eyed kindergartener.

My wife and I couldn't be certain about how he would handle school. Even though he had been in day care, this was far different: a class of nearly 30 with only one or two friends. We were thankful his teacher, Kim Parke, had an aide, Rhonda Walsh.

Six years later, Ethan is in the gifted program and doing well, but his bond with his first teachers remains.

I'm sure plenty of other parents would credit Mrs. Parke and Mrs. Walsh for helping their children adjust to school. They can't say that this year.

In meeting class-size reduction demands, the Hillsborough School District chose to trim kindergarten aides for the 2004-05 school year so it would have more money for additional teachers and classes.

The result was that instead of having one aide in every class, there were two aides at each school: one to work with students and one to handle administrative duties. Most schools ended up with smaller classes, but teachers didn't have a partner.

The one classroom aide had to serve a far larger group of students. Walsh split her time between seven kindergarten classes at Valrico. Instead of buying Valentine's Day gifts for 25 kids, she purchased gifts for 150.

"I miss going into a classroom and having that one-on-one relationship with the children," Walsh said Wednesday. "That was the worse thing for me this year.

"With kindergarten, these mommies are leaving their babies with us for the first time ever. You want to be close to these children."

Walsh was spread so thin, she's taking next year off. She worries about the educational foundation being set for our kids now that teachers are largely on their own with a group of 5-year-olds.

Officially, the aides are classified as para-professionals, but don't let the big title make you think they're getting big money. Most aides are driven by a love for the kids and the realization that giving kindergarten teachers a second set of hands is critical.

"The kids deserve someone who knows what typical development for that age group is and can assist in their instruction as well as dry tears, tie shoelaces and bandage boo-boos," said Pamela O. Fleege, a professor in the University of South Florida's department of childhood education.

"This age group needs individual attention because most of their instruction takes place in small groups or as individuals."

The aides help with that learning, as well as with lessons about social and behavioral skills. They gently remind the students about how to act at school and remove from class kids who are misbehaving.

"Without an aide, there is no one there to help out, pull that child aside and deal with him one-on-one," Walsh explained. "The instructional time stops. The class loses its rhythm."

Lisa Bellock, the school district's kindergarten supervisor, says reaction to the change was mixed this year. Teachers who didn't particularly value their aides have been thrilled to have smaller classes. But the teacher who loved having the para-professional "will never get over losing that."

You can definitely put Parke and Walsh in the latter category.

What to do? Well, we can rail against the state Legislature for not properly funding education - again. Or we can call for the school district to increase property taxes and get labeled as tax and spend liberals - again.

Or maybe USF can help. Fleege, the USF professor, not only offered opinions, she offered solutions, suggesting the school district find ways to use the university's childhood education students.

"Many of our students work full-time in order to go to school," Fleege said. "We would much prefer they work with children instead of waiting tables."

Ideally, there would be enough money to put the aides back in every class. But if we have to find an alternative, why not college kids eager for experience?

Sure, school district officials would have to work out a lot of details, but if they have the same dedication I've seen Walsh display, potential problems would be speed bumps instead of road blocks.

I'm certain our kindergarten kids deserve the effort.

That's all I'm saying.

- Ernest Hooper can be reached at 813 226-3406 or Hooper@sptimes.com

[Last modified May 26, 2005, 01:16:14]


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