Project PARA’s enduring impact

Project PARA’s enduring impact

23 Nov 2016     By Brad Stauffer | CEHS Director of External Relations

For over 25 years, paraprofessional educators across the state of Nebraska have been receiving training from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. The program got its start in the mid-90s in the former Teachers College. Professor Emeritus Stan Vasa and Al Steckelberg, associate professor of Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education, created the program with funding support from the U.S. Department of Education.

Initially, the program went out to Nebraska communities to deliver the training—a more costly model that limited the number of paras that could be reached. Since 1998, Project PARA has been a web-based program that has effectively and efficiently served more than 7,000 paras all across the Cornhusker State.

“There’s no way we could drive and do training for 7,200 people in Nebraska,” said Steckelberg. “The impact has far exceeded what we could have done face-to-face, and I think it’s a particularly good model for rural school districts. We have developed an approach in which we can use the web to provide systematic learning materials and activities in a way that utilizes local teachers and administrators as a mentors for the participating paraeducators. In addition, we have the advantage of maintaining detailed records of paraeducators’ participation and completion of activities.”

Photo of Kimberly Snyder
(L-R) Kim Snyder, Accreditation and School Improvement Team, Nebraska Department of Education; Deborah Frison, deputy commissioner, School Improvement and Support, Nebraska Department of Education; and Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt visit during a break at the paraeducators conference. Snyder and Blomstedt both earned their doctoral degrees from CEHS. (Photo courtesy of Wade Fruhling, ESU Coordinating Council.)

Through federal special education funding, the Nebraska Department of Education annually funds Project PARA, serving approximately 1,000 paras each year through 16 web-based training units and an annual paraeducator conference in Kearney. The web content includes both learning and assessment activities.

“It’s hard to train paras,” says Amy Kroll, special education coordinator with Auburn Public Schools, “so this is one opportunity for them to learn about working with kids with disabilities without having to pull them out of the classroom where they are needed most. I meet with our paras once a month and we go through Project PARA and discuss the topics with them. I think it’s great. Our paras are really looking at it and benefitting from it.”

Steckelberg says Project PARA is essentially a partnership between the state of Nebraska, the College of Education and Human Sciences, and the state’s school districts. During its 25-year run, Project PARA has registered paraeducators from 256 Nebraska school districts to participate in the online training. Project PARA provides feedback to participants, their district and the state, including data on how participants scored on the training units, ease of use and an overall rating of the training.

300 people attending the conference
Nearly 300 people attended the Nebraska Paraeducator Conference Oct. 26 at the Younes Conference Center in Kearney. (Photo courtesy of Wade Fruhling, ESU Coordinating Council.)

The essence of Project PARA is to assist paraeducators in developing core knowledge and skills needed for effectively supporting classroom instruction. It fulfills Title I and other federal requirements for para training. It also helps meet the requirements of the Nebraska Department of Education for early childhood para training.

“Participation has remained strong over a considerable number of years,” said Steckelberg, “and I anticipate that growth will continue.” Ongoing improvements to the curriculum, technology and partnership with districts has proven to be a winning combination that has made Project PARA a popular and successful program that ultimately helps children with special needs in Nebraska learn better.

Project PARA hosts the annual Nebraska Paraeducator Conference in Kearney. Nebraska graduate Kimberly Snyder, Nebraska Department of Education, presents to the audience at the Younes Conference. (Photo courtesy of Wade Fruhling, ESU Coordinating Council.)
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