UWS Delivers Learning Boost To Manatee County Schools With Paraprofessional Funding

The second grader’s blue octopus drawing was replete with eight tentacles, and all eight of those tentacles touched Janet Bowers’ heart.

“I thought this was the sweetest thing,” Bowers smiled, noting the drawing’s accompanying note included proper punctuation. “They just benefit so much with one-on-one attention.”

The picture reflects the connection Bowers had made with the students at Palm View Elementary as its new paraprofessional. Bowers and Angela Meilan at Samoset Elementary are among five new paraprofessionals that will bring added instruction to classrooms in the 2021-22 school year thanks to a funded partnership between the School District of Manatee County and United Way Suncoast.

UWS has devoted $130,000 in funding to the school district to apply to the salaries of the five paraprofessionals. It’s driven by its commitment to early learning and its focus on The Big Plan, a collaborative effort to ensure all children are reading on grade-level by the end of the third grade.

Bowers and Meilan started early, joining the staffs at their respective schools in April. Each day, they work individually with select students who need added attention. Bowers said sometimes students get flustered or nervous in a conventional classroom setting. “As a parapro you can sit with the kids who really need the extra push and the help,” Bowers said. “If you can take them and sit them aside, two or three of them, and work with them one-on-one, oh my gosh, they appreciate it so much.”

Both paraprofessionals are finding the work to be effective and rewarding for the students, and themselves. Meilan said she discovered a welcoming environment at Samoset thanks to eager students and friendly teachers. “I  have just fallen in love with the school,” Meilan said. “All the teachers are so amazing to work with and getting to know and work with the students has been so fulfilling. It makes me happy knowing that I am making a difference in their lives and helping them move forward.”

Administrators at both schools expressed joy about adding the paraprofessionals to the staff. Palm View principal Kaththea Johnson said Bowers is doing a wonderful job and she’s excited to see students’ progress. Samoset assistant principal Beth Marshall said Bowers is “wonderful” and hopes her work will help narrow the learning gap created by the pandemic and the temporary shift to e-learning.

The state education department’s latest release about testing scores underscores the need to address that gap and amp up reading instruction. According to the Bradenton Herald, Manatee’s third-grade assessment test scores declined 2 percentage points between 2019 and 2021, from 51 percent to 49 percent. That was less than the state’s overall 4 percent decline, but still a signal of need.

With United Way Suncoast serving as the lead for the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, UWS Chief Impact Officer Bronwyn Beightol says the need can be addressed by The Big Plan collaborative, which includes the district, Manatee County Government, Manatee Community Foundation, Early Learning Coalition of Manatee County and The Patterson Foundation.

“United Way believes that our children are our most important investment in the future,” said Beightol. “Ensuring that we have paraprofessionals in classrooms where our children need them the most, we are addressing the achievement gap and giving our children an extra edge in their academic futures, and life.”

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