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    Special Education

    Partnership helps Alabama district solve staffing challenges in serving students with special needs.


    Managed paraeducator program provides Jefferson County Schools with stability, flexibility, and efficiency.

    As the second-largest district in Alabama, Jefferson County Schools enrolls over 36,000 students in 57 schools located in and around Birmingham, and employs 4,500 teachers, administrators and support staff. The district’s vision statement includes a goal of using best practices to effectively provide for the diverse needs of all learners.

    To that end, Jefferson County Schools (JEFCOED) has an expansive Office of Exceptional Education, a department serving the significant number of students with disabilities and special needs in the district and overseeing hundreds of special education teachers and paraprofessionals.

    Susan Wirt has been the director of Exceptional Education at JEFCOED for more than 24 years.

    “We have a very large population of about 5,200 special education students, with about 190 paraprofessionals working with them and assisting our special education teachers,” Wirt says. “We have such a significant population partially due to the many medical and mental health services and facilities located in our area, which are helpful to families with children with disabilities. We also get a high number of student referrals sent to us from other local school systems because of the services we provide.”

    Meeting special needs.

    About 38 percent of the district’s special education paraprofessionals are provided by Kelly Education, which handles recruiting, hiring, training and placing these employees.

    Wirt says that the flexibility that Kelly Education offers is particularly beneficial when it comes to hiring paraprofessionals to work with special needs students. “Staffing for special education can be challenging, in part because the number of students we work with can vary significantly year over year. We may need to add more paraeducators at times, or may need fewer of them, and it can change quite suddenly,” Wirt says.

    For example, Wirt describes a recent scenario where a new student with disabilities and who spoke limited English arrived in the school system from another country. “We needed to hire a bilingual special education paraprofessional to work with that student, and find someone as quickly as possible,” she says. “Fortunately, I could pick up the phone and call our Kelly representative to discuss the situation and our needs, and they provided a bilingual aide within a few days. There have been times when Kelly has provided a paraprofessional that met our needs within 48-72 hours of me calling, which is extremely helpful.”

    “If the district were to hire someone for that position, traditionally that would require writing and posting a job description for a designated period, getting board approval, interviewing candidates and then hiring,” Wirt continues. “Working with Kelly Education is far more efficient and cost effective, and we can move much more quickly. And the paraprofessionals they provide have been very qualified and well trained.”

    Another advantage is mobility, as Kelly Education paraeducators can easily be placed in whichever school has a need. “For district employees, moving anyone from school to school can be a cumbersome administrative process,” Wirt explains. “But with Kelly we have so much more flexibility. I can call and move special education aides to different schools as needs change. That streamlines the process and ensures we serve our teachers and students quickly and efficiently.”

    “Working with Kelly Education is far more efficient and cost effective, and we can move much more quickly. And the paraprofessionals they provide have been very qualified and well trained."

    - Sandy Jolivette, Human Resources Director

    Adapting to changes during COVID-19.

    Like districts around the country, JEFCOED was forced to close all schools and transition to online learning in March 2020 because of COVID-19. The district resumed in-person instruction in the fall but gave parents the flexibility to have their children continue remotely if desired and allowed teachers to conduct remote instruction if needed.

    “That presented us with a lot of challenges for special education,” Wirt says. “We have an individualized education plan (IEP) for each of our 5,200 special needs students and needed to implement many of them remotely. Our paraeducators were able to do so effectively and under the guidance of our special education teachers. They received new training for maintaining student engagement, focus and attentiveness in an online setting,” says Wirt.

    “We also lost some paraeducators due to retirements or resignations, or due to concerns about COVID-19, and so we used Kelly to fill those positions quickly,” she says. “That helped us to maintain consistency during this challenging time, which is so important for these students.”

    Benefits of the partnership.

    Sandy Jolivette, Human Resources Director for JEFCOED, says the paraprofessionals are a highlight of the partnership, and Kelly also provides all the district’s short-term and long-term substitute teachers, as well as Child Nutrition Department staff, teachers’ aides, bus aides and office personnel when needed.

    “Handling all of these positions, especially substitute educators, had become overwhelming for our district office. It made much more sense to use Kelly Education, and we have seen significant cost savings as well,” Jolivette says.

    From her perspective as director of such a large and diverse special education department, Wirt says the partnership with Kelly, and the paraprofessionals they provide, have been highly beneficial.

    “There are a variety of advantages, including improved efficiency, reduced turnaround time for new hires, and reduced administrative burdens,” Wirt says. “I also appreciate how Kelly Education works hard training their employees in specific special education skills, such as verbal de-escalation techniques. That is so important. Kelly also makes a true effort to ensure that the employee is a good fit for the position, which we appreciate a great deal.”

    Overall, Wirt says JEFCOED plans to continue working with Kelly Education for these important positions. “They have been so helpful, communicative and collaborative. It has been a very solid relationship. I would highly recommend Kelly Education to other districts.”

    Jolivette agrees. “I’m not only the HR Director, I’m also a parent of students in our schools, and they tell me great things about the substitute teachers in their classrooms. It’s reassuring to know that we work with a company that cares about the quality of the personnel they are placing in our schools and classrooms,” Jolivette says.

    “We can’t know for sure what the future holds, but I know we’ll continue to work with Kelly,” Jolivette adds. “I can say with certainty that if we have needs or ideas, Kelly Education will be there to work with us. They’re always willing to help and are making sure our needs are met.”

    Article commissioned by Kelly Education and written by District Administration.

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