Claudia Navarro is an ELL paraprofessional at Coral Gables Senior High School in Coral Gables, Florida. A native of Colombia, Claudia has lived in the U.S. for more than 27 years. She now provides academic support in content areas to ELL students at her high school through the federal Home Language Assistance Program. The mother of sons who are enrolled at Dartmouth College and Harvard University, Claudia is currently going back to school to earn her bachelor's degree in Special Education from Miami-Dade College. In this exclusive interview with Colorín Colorado, Claudia describes what makes her work as a paraprofessional unique, how teachers and paraprofessionals can best work together, and the support she offers to her students to help them succeed.
How did you get involved in the field of education?
At first, when my children were very young, I wasn't too involved in their school. I dropped them off every day like other parents, and I was working at a mortgage company. Then one of my son's teachers, a lovely woman, volunteered me to help out with the class one day; because I respected her a great deal, I couldn't say no. Soon after I helped out with the Thanksgiving presentation in my son's class, and found myself enjoying it so much that I started going to the school every day. When a job opened up as a teacher's aide at my son's school, the director of the school offered me the position.
For many years I worked in the elementary school, helping children who were struggling readers. Then I moved to a fifth grade class where I worked with kids who showed high-risk tendencies for dropping out of high school. From there I moved on to Coral Gables.
What does your current job as an ELL paraprofessional entail?
I have worked as part of the federal Home Language Assistance Program at Coral Gables for 5 years, and am one of two instructors in our high school's program. Out of about 3700 students, 500 are ESOL students. I don't work with all of them, but for the ones whose teachers use our program, I provide academic support to high school students in content areas (such as Science, Mathematics, and Social Studies) based on what the teachers have requested me to work on with the students. They determine what the students need to focus on, and we do everything from homework assignments to test preparation to research projects.
Where do you work with your students?
We generally work in the library because it's quiet and we have access to the computers in case we need to research something. I bring all of my materials to the library each day so that I will have whatever I need to assist the students.
How far in advance do teachers let you know what they want you to help the students with?
Usually I see what the student needs to work on when the student meets with me. I never know how many students will come each day, or what I will be working on from day to day, and I often have to switch channels — just as one student is getting going on geometry, I have to switch over to history with another student.
I collaborate a lot with some of the teachers at my school, but even though they are required to send their students to us if the students need help, some opt not to and don't take advantage of our program.
Do students who come to you more frequently make more progress in their schoolwork?
Absolutely. What I have found is that the more consistently that teachers send their students to us, the better the results are. It's harder to make progress with students who only come once in awhile. Like any teacher, we get to know our students; we see their strengths and weaknesses, and we can help them in the areas that they are consistently struggling in.
What other kinds of support do these students need?
In addition to academic support, students who are new to the school and new to this country may not understand many of the complicated systems we have in our high schools. For example, in our school, students can enter a school website to check their grades on a regular basis. When they check their grades, they know how they're doing and what they need to work on. But when they don't check their grades, they don't know where they stand, and they don't know which areas need improvement. This also makes it more difficult for them to move onto something more advanced. So I make sure they understand how to log in to the website, and how to make sense of the grading system.
Another example of this is the accumulation of class absences. If students don't know that they have to get their absences excused by each of their teachers, their unexcused absences build up very quickly, which can lead to further problems. Students need help figuring these things out, and so I try to do what I can to guide them through the necessary steps. My personal goal is to offer these students the support they need to help them get through high school.
Do you have a large percentage of Spanish-speaking students?
More than 75% of the students at our school are of Hispanic origin. Many are bilingual, but a number of them are struggling to learn English.
You are bilingual. Which language do you use with your Spanish-speaking students?
For the Spanish-speaking students whose English proficiency is very limited, I first work with them in Spanish to ensure they understand what they are supposed to be doing. Then we switch over to English. The problem is time — we only meet with our students for as long as a class period lasts, so we face the same constraints that teachers do. For students whose first language is neither English or Spanish, I work with them in English using very basic language and going slowly through the material to make sure they understand.
And in the bigger picture, at the high school level the situation is urgent — students don't have time to make a class or a credit up the following year. So I try to find the balance between being efficient in Spanish, and supporting their English language development.
Do you work with the parents of your students?
I reach out to them whenever I have the opportunity to do so, and give them suggestions for how to support their kids. Each year I hand out fliers to parents about our program, but in the end it's up to the teachers as to whether they will send their kids to us. I always answer whatever questions parents have, and try to make them feel welcome in our school. If a parent wants to meet with me to talk about their child, I print out the student's grades and talk the parent through the grades so that they understand what the student is studying and what the grades mean.
I also like to encourage parents to spend time with their children, to make time to share activities whenever possible because it makes such a difference for these kids.
What is your relationship like with the other teachers at your school?
I have a very strong relationship with some of the teachers I work with, and we all see the success that our program has helped them achieve. Others are reluctant to use our program. I think it's a question of winning their trust.
What is needed in order for teachers and paraprofessionals to work together?
I think some of the best collaboration happens when teachers see paraprofessionals as resources, someone who can help in the classroom and who lends an extra set of hands to help the students. Often I see that paraprofessionals are put to work doing paperwork and filing, and while it's true that that may be a help to the teacher, it doesn't take full advantage of the paraprofessional's skills.
If a paraprofessional is in the classroom with the teacher, they may able to provide some one-on-one assistance that teachers don't always have time to give. And they may be able to spend the extra time that a student needs to master a certain assignment or concept.
Paraprofessionals are indeed professional educators, there to help the children, and if everyone keeps that goal in front them, the kids will make a lot of progress.
What is your advice for other paraprofessionals?
To continue their education, and do everything they can to help the children they work with. It's interesting — a paraprofessional can be a kind of conduit between the teachers and students. A student may feel more comfortable approaching a paraprofessional with a personal or academic problem than they feel approaching the teacher. But the important thing to remember is that we are all there for the children.
What problems are your students facing?
Unfortunately, I see that many of the students that I teach don't have parents who are involved with their lives. It may be because the parents are working (especially single parents), or it may be that the parents aren't interested, but it puts a lot of strain on my students. Many of my students go straight to their jobs after school, or go home to do housework and take care of younger siblings.
I have one student who is 18 years old and in 11th grade. Since the age of 14, he has been supporting his household by working after school. I don't know how they can get any schoolwork done, or take care of themselves, let alone enjoy themselves.
Is there a student that stands out in your memory?
Many of my students work with me for only a short time, but whenever I see a student develop an interest in learning who had been disinterested in learning previously, I feel so proud of them. Sometimes all they need is that first bit of success — then they move out of ESOL classes quickly and graduate sooner than they thought they would. What I have to do is help them believe that they can do it with hard work, and when I see them make it happen, it is wonderful.
What is the favorite part of your job?
I love the variety from day to day. It keeps my job exciting and interesting. Of course, it's one of the biggest challenges too because I never know what I'll be working on from one day to the next. And because I often work one-on-one with students, I get to know them pretty well.
Of course, one of the biggest highlights for me is to see one of my students earn their high school diploma and walk across the stage at graduation. I know how hard they've worked to accomplish that achievement. And sometimes they come back to visit me, and I am always happy to learn about how they are doing.
What are your plans for the future?
I'm very excited to be working on my Special Education degree right now. After I finish my degree, we'll see what's next!
And as always I am enjoying my students, my wonderful family, and our two dogs! I am so proud of my sons and what they are achieving in college, and I have an incredibly supportive husband. We've been married for 24 years, and I couldn't have done anything without him.