By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun
5:09 PM EDT, March 21, 2013
For those who believe Phelps Luck Elementary School paraeducator Donna Schulze is too outspoken or too uncompromising on issues relating to her profession, she's got a message for you: Too bad.
"If I see something, I'm going to speak up," said Schulze, 59, who was named this month as the national Education Support Professional of the Year by the National Education Association.
The NEA award comes with a challenge — Schulze will be called upon to advocate for its organization's 484,000 education support professional members, and will travel to state, regional and national conferences as an ambassador. The Washington, D.C.-based organization has 3 million members at every level of education, according to its website.
A fixture at the Columbia elementary school, Schulze appears up to the advocacy task. In fact, she said, about the only time she's been left speechless was the moment she was named ESP of the Year.
"I congratulated someone else on winning because I thought this man had won," said Schulze, who lives in Mount Airy. "One of my friends said, 'Did you write a thank-you speech?' And I said, 'No, because I'm not going to win,' because truthfully, I look at what I do, and it's what I should do. It's not extraordinary."
"The selection of Donna Schulze as ESP of the Year is just a fraction of the recognition she deserves for a lifetime of helping kindergarten students and teachers, along with her fellow employees," said Paul Lemle, president of the Howard County Education Association, which nominated her for the award.
Generally speaking, paraeducators are school employees who work with teachers or other professionals to provide services and instruction to students and families. Schulze, who has been a paraeducator for 23 years, said she's been working in Howard long enough that three of her first kindergarten students now teach in the school system.
She now works with two kindergarten teachers out of a team of six at Phelps Luck, assisting students with tasks such as holding pencils properly and learning the sounds of letters.
"You get them from reading at first-grade level to — such as in this school — students who come in with no English. Sometimes they don't know the letters in their own language," she said. "It's moving through everything. And you have to get them [prepared] to go to first grade, to hopefully close that achievement gap, which is what we're really working hard on doing."
Schulze has been assisting youngsters since she was an adolescent. She worked in a Head Start program during the summer while in middle school, then worked at a day care center, then owned her own day care facility. She began volunteering in Howard County public schools while working in a nursery school, and subsequently signed on as a paraeducator.
"Donna is a dedicated para leader who possesses a general passion for ensuring the education of all children," said Phelps Luck Principal Sean Martin. "She does that through inspiring students, and also through supporting teachers to meet the academic and behavioral needs demonstrated by students.
"She has a lot of different roles at this school … and she's also involved with committed advocacy for paraeducators at the city and state level," Martin said.
Schulze has been vocal in her support for paraeducators and other nonteachers during her tenure in the school system, and has frequently implored the school board to consider improving such workers' salaries.
Last year, during public hearings for then-Superintendent Sydney Cousin's 2013 operating budget proposal, she denounced the plan, saying it did not include pay raises for school employees. Ten years ago, she praised the school board for authorizing a reclassification study to raise educators' pay.
"Back then, some of the job descriptions were written back in 1972. Things have changed greatly since then. In the beginning, we were teachers' aides," Schulze said. You were color, cut and paste, then put the materials together, and that's all you did. Now we're one-on-ones, working [with] the students. It's a very big difference."
Among her more prominent accomplishments as a paraeducator has been helping lead the way in getting the Maryland State Teachers Association's name changed to the Maryland State Education Association in 2009, school officials said. The previous name — which Schulze contended didn't acknowledged those in school systems who weren't teachers — had existed for 143 years.
"I just kept saying, 'Where am I in this whole thing?' " Schulze said. "I am part of this union. I am part of this whole thing, but when I talk to the governor or lobbying for anything, they don't think I belong because I'm not a teacher."
Schulze said she'll continue to speak out about issues she deems important. And she said that in Howard County, "The school board pretty much listens when you speak. They can't always do something about it, because they've got financial constraints, but they do listen, and they talk to us about it."
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