Immigrants train to work in Burnsville classrooms as teacher aides

  • Article by: ERIN ADLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 6, 2013 - 11:59 PM

An innovative adult education class trains immigrants to become paraprofessionals so they can help kids learn English.

Maryan Ali always knew she wanted to work in a school and help her community, but she didn’t know how to get her foot in the door.

So when she heard about a class offered through Adult Basic Education (ABE) in the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District that aimed to prepare bilingual adults to become paraprofessionals in K-12 schools, she was instantly interested.

“When someone told me about this class for people like me, for immigrants, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh! They knew what I was thinking!’ I knew I had to take it,” said Ali.

Ali enrolled in the 12-week Paraprofessional Prep class last fall for advanced ELL (English language learner) students. This winter she passed the paraprofessional exam, and next week, she will begin working as a bilingual educational assistant in the district, working directly with students, especially kids whose first language is Somali.

“I’m just excited about the whole process,” said Ali, who left Somalia in 1999. “I want to work with kids and communities for the long run.”

The free class, likely the only one of its kind in Minnesota, not only provides a way for adult ELL students to enter the education profession, it also provides the district with a diverse pool of K-12 paraprofessionals, said Kathy Funston, district curriculum director.

Funston said she was “incredibly happy” to hire Ali and another graduate of the class.

“In our district ... we have a growing bilingual community. We needed a way to make the content in the mainstream classroom accessible for our English language learners,” Funston said.

About a quarter of the district’s students are English language learners, Funston estimated, and the two largest groups are Spanish and Somali speakers. The bilingual educational assistants will act as student advocates and bridge cultural gaps, in addition to helping with academic skills.

Kevin Avise, program manager of District 191’s school for adults, said the class meets both his program’s goals and those of the district.

At the K-12 level, the district’s student body is very diverse, “but we felt like all the people who were standing in front of the students, helping them, looked and sounded the same,” Avise said.

He also saw many adult students who were interested in education careers.

“This gives us the chance to turn something that for our students was a deficit — needing to learn a new language — into a market advantage,” Avise said.

After Avise and the district agreed there was a need, Avise turned to ABE instructor Stephen Hunt to write the Paraprofessional Prep curriculum.

He developed teaching materials using the paraprofessional exam and also referenced national and state paraprofessional standards.

In addition to teaching subject matter and vocabulary, Hunt “used scenarios to try to make it authentic in terms of what they’d face in schools. We also had several class visits to local elementary and middle schools,” he said.

Ali said that although she’s involved in her three children’s education, she still learned “inside information” about schools.

Anisa Amin of Bloomington took the class this winter and found the lessons on behavioral management especially useful. She also learned how to read aloud to a group and how to teach math, she said.

“It’s a very good, essential program — and Somalian children can benefit, too,” said Amin, who came here from Somalia a decade ago. “When someone’s from your country, knows your language, you become a little bit more comfortable.”

Hunt said the response from students and the district has been very positive. With fall and winter sessions under his belt, he’s seen about two dozen students complete the class.

“I think the students really appreciate a step into a more professional type of job rather than working assembly or at a restaurant,” Hunt said.

Hunt was pleased that seven of the nine students from the fall class who took the paraprofessional exam passed it. He is already planning for next fall’s class, which has five students on the waiting list. Recently, another ABE program contacted him to ask about replicating the class, he said.

Erin Adler • 952-746-3283

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