Making a connection with special needs students at Bruce Randolph Middle School goes a long way with Chavonne Henry.

“They all bring something different to the table,’” Henry said. “I get to teach the kids that are like my own kids.”

She became a young mother in college and had to drop out due to her child’s special needs and lack of finances.

“She had severe health complications that trumped school,” Henry said. “I had to figure out 'Do I pay for this within my home or do I pay for my education?'”

She earned an early childhood education teaching certificate, but still wanted her education degree to pursue her dream of becoming a special needs teacher.

To support her four children, all with special needs, she became a paraprofessional in the Denver Public School District.

She heard about the Para to Teacher Pipeline, a program started by DPS to give paraprofessionals a chance to earn a full scholarship for their undergraduate teaching degree from universities like the University of Denver and University of Northern Colorado.

The program is funded in collaboration by the Denver Public Schools Foundation and Gary Community Investments. Future funding will also be made possible by mill levy dollars approved by taxpayers in the November election.

Through the program, the district (made up of about 70 percent minority students) has a chance to recruit from an untapped resource.

“We’ve got about 2,000 paras in DPS and 65 percent of those are people of color,” Melissa Boyd said, director of Bruce Randolph Middle School. “It’s about being able to increase the diversity of our teacher workforce.”

UNC has a similar program that started back in 2000 to give aspiring teachers about 4,000 hours of classroom experience in districts across the metro area.

“Getting more people of color into teaching positions is a huge priority of UNC,” Rosanne Fulton said, director for the Center for Urban Education with the University of Northern Colorado. “We can be successful at recruiting more people of color and helping them to gain the confidence that they need to be successful as classroom teachers.”

That gives districts like DPS a chance to ensure students see positive role models who look just like them.

“Paraprofessionals give us a whole pool of people that are very reflective of the neighborhoods and communities,” Fulton said.

It allows educators like Henry a chance to earn her degree tuition-free, and to help make that connection with students.

“[When] I got the final e-mail saying the remainder of your degree is going to be paid for, I cried,” Henry said.

It also connects them with an alternative route to pursue their goals of teaching in the classroom.

“Now I get the opportunity to get my bachelor’s in special education,” Henry said.

DPS says the program will integrate recent research, theory and best practices to meet the educational needs of school districts.

They also hope to see more paraprofessionals from the district enrolled in the program in the future.

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