CUSD administrators roll up shirtsleeves

There is a Native American proverb that insists you can’t judge a person until you have walked a mile in their moccasins. With this in mind, a number of CUSD administrators and board members took to Claremont campuses on Wednesday, ready to follow in the footsteps of the district’s classified staff.

The effort was part of a program called ACE (Appreciating Classified Employees) sponsored by the California School Employees Association. The Claremont Unified School District was one of 10 districts selected out of 700 to participate in the springtime event.

ACE, which coincides with Classified School Employee Week, was initiated in 2007. It uses “job shadowing” to highlight the contributions of classified school employees like food service workers, secretaries, para-educators and groundskeepers. It’s a way to salute the work of classified employees and “promote understanding between staff and administration,” according to the CSEA website.

Superintendent Jim Elsasser took part in the program, heading to Danbury Elementary School. With its population of orthopedically handicapped and medically fragile students, Danbury is dependent on the constant assistance of its 20 or so para-educators or special education aides. The district head became one of these aides for the morning, interacting with the children in Sarah Estrada’s first- and second-grade class.

Mr. Elsasser, all 6-foot-four-inches of him, hunkered down, interacting with students with disabilities like cerebral palsy, which can hit kids with varying degrees of severity.

Some of the children were in the midst of an art project, coloring a picture of maracas—using finger-crayons or an aide’s hand-on-hand assistance—as part of the classroom’s focus on Mexico for the school’s Multi-Cultural Day. Others, including 9-year-old Sean Tmouh, were working on computer-assisted projects.

Sean, who proudly admits to being a bit of “a geek,” said computer work is what he loves best at Danbury. When he’s home, his technology use turns from work to play, with his current favorite video game being “Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.”

For 8-year-old Emily Mendez, the highlight of the school year was the annual rock-climbing experience provided by No Limits. The organization, founded by paraplegic rock-climber Wes Ferson, allows even the most severely disabled kids to ascend a rock-studded 25-foot wall with the help of adaptive equipment such as a special belt, harness and pull-up bar. 

“I got to free-climb,” Emily said of the “peak experience” held recently at Danbury. “When we got to the top, we rang the bell.”

Whether students are literally or metaphorically climbing mountains to get past their challenges, there are always para-educators on hand to help the students’ day go smoothly.

“Basically they make it all happen—taking kids to the bathroom for their hygiene needs, getting them fed, moving them from place-to-place.” Principal Steve Hamilton said. “They’re in the classroom giving directions, often working hand-over-hand because, with many students, you have to hold their hand to help them engage in an activity.”

Like other ACE participants, Mr. Elsasser was on duty with his small charges from 11:45 to 1 p.m. It was a short time, but it was enough to provide a taste of the kind of support para-educators provide to disabled students in Claremont. It’s something the administrator already appreciates, Mr. Hamilton said, because Mr. Elsasser—a more hands-on superintendent—pays regular visits to the campus.

“The superintendent is doing a great job. That’s really him,” Mr. Hamilton said, indicating Mr. Elsasser as he sat side-by-side with one of the pint-sized students. “He’s not doing a role right now. He’s got so much empathy.”

Of course, the job shadowing was about appreciating the classified employees like the three aides in Ms. Estrada’s class, not administrators. One of these, LaShondae Hughes, is a new addition to Danbury this year, though she has worked with disabled people for many years. She paused a moment from her work, helping a girl with a developmental disability complete her art project, to weigh in on what drew her to the job.

“I love working with people of all ages and with all needs,” she said. “I find it fulfilling.”

Every once in a while, someone finds working with students for whom nearly every task is a challenge to be too wrenching. There have been a few would-be staffers who have left in tears, Mr. Hamilton said.

Most people who come to Danbury, however, have the ability to not only sympathize with the children but to celebrate their step-by-step progress. It’s common for a para-educator to stay at the school for 10 or even 20 years.

Michelle Martinez, known as Ms. Michelle to her students, is one of these veterans, having been at Danbury for 17 years. “I stay here because of my love for the children,” she said. “They make my heart big.”

Rosie Bister, head of CUSD’s classified staff union, has been a champion of bringing the ACE program to the district. In general, Claremont administrators are good listeners who understand the importance of all the hard work undertaken by support staff, she said.

“But when they see it firsthand, it makes the employees feel valued and understood for what they do,” she said. “That’s important.”

Sixteen district leaders in all shadowed classified employees, including school board members David Nemer and Hilary LaConte, who followed IT user support analyst Dave Lawson and proctor and mail handler Joe Gonzales, respectively.

For Mr. Hamilton, every day is a reminder of the need for classified staff, especially his team of para-educators. Their help is particularly crucial since a recent reorganization in area special education has brought 15 new students to Danbury, bringing the total school population 85 kids. The newcomers are, in general, more severely disabled than most of the kids.

“Don’t tell the teachers, but this place would fall apart without the aides,” he said.

—Sarah Torribio


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