Kelly Hayes has severe dyslexia and an eight-year-old son with cerebral palsy, so she empathizes with special needs children who struggle in school. Now she can turn that empathy into employment. This summer, Hayes was one of 12 UW Odyssey Project graduates trained to become special education paraprofessionals.
“At the beginning of the course, I was just thinking about how I struggled in school, and how my son struggles now,” said Hayes, who participated in a pilot program sponsored by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies and Educational Outreach and Partnerships in conjunction with the Madison Metropolitan School District. “But as the class went on, and I had a chance to work in the schools with special needs kids, I started to understand that, with the right teachers and support staff, the sky is the limit for these kids. They may have to work a bit harder than the others, but they can do it.”
The course filled an important need for special education teacher’s aides within the Madison school district. At the same time, it will also lead to employment for Odyssey Project graduates, who often struggle to escape poverty. Odyssey is a UW-Madison program that offers a six-credit humanities class for 30 adults facing adversity, providing them with free tuition, textbooks, childcare, and a weekly dinner.
Hayes’ classmates included two mothers from Mexico and one from Puerto Rico who will be able to bridge the language gap for bilingual special needs children. Milli Lau, who is from Hong Kong, plans to utilize her background in computers to bring assistive technology into the classroom, and she said that she learned a lot from the diversity of the class.
“This class gathered graduates from different years of the UW Odyssey Project—students who came from a variety of countries, races, religions, and backgrounds. However, we joined this program and worked together for a common goal—to become special education teacher’s assistants and help students with special needs.”
An extraordinary seven weeks
During the summer program, taught in the UW South Madison Partnership classroom, students earned two UW credits while receiving intensive preparation for future jobs in the Madison schools. The seven-week course covered the core principles of special education instruction, CPR, first-aid certification, and nonviolent crisis intervention, as well as tutoring in math and literacy. Students also completed a 10-hour practicum that gave them hands-on experience in the classroom.
Nissa Uriostegui, whose son has Asperger’s, said, “This was one of the most extraordinary seven weeks of my life. In addition to the training, I was able to learn where my heart and soul longed to be—with special needs kids.”
Lisa Hebgen of Educational Outreach and Partnerships, the course’s lead teacher, said, “These paras form lasting bonds with children and their families, and it’s such an important, though challenging, job. I believe these 12 individuals will be strong advocates for their students, and I am really looking forward to hearing about their success, and the success of their students, in the coming years.”
At the ceremony at the end of the program, students presented their research on a specific behavioral, physical, emotional, or learning disability. Emily Auerbach, the director of the UW Odyssey Project, said, “When I attended the final class, tears came to my eyes as I listened to each of the 12 Odyssey graduates give a presentation about a disability and heard them speak about their experiences working in the schools. I am thrilled to think that, because of this training course, these individuals are now able to make a difference in the lives of children with special needs.”