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The days when teacher assistants wiped little faces and did menial odd jobs in special education classrooms are past.

Today, they are VIPs (very important paraeducators) whose presence in a classroom allows a certified teacher to concentrate efforts where they are most important."Without Jan, I wouldn't survive," said Theresa Larrabee, a teacher in Davis District's Learning Center, where children with special needs are served in self-contained units.

She refers to Jan Pace, a teacher assistant who has worked with her for seven years. "If she quits, I quit," said Larrabee, only half tongue-in-cheek. "With kids having such diverse needs, there is no way for one person to do what needs to be done."

The current practice of "mainstreaming" children with disabilities also requires better preparation in the self-contained classrooms, she said. Special education teachers - and paraeducators trained in the needs of such children - are also in demand in regular classrooms to help teachers who now are dealing with special needs children along with other students.

Defining the role of paraeducators, setting standards and providing training to help them become effective classroom partners are all elements of a Utah movement that parallels a similar push throughout the country, said Marilyn Likins, research specialist with the Utah State University Center for Persons with Disabilities.

Friday and Saturday, Sept. 23 and 24, Utah paraeducators will hold their first-ever conference in the Olympus Hotel. The degree of interest was evident when the conference filled up far ahead of the regis- tration deadline. The meetings will feature speakers from other states and local experts who will cover topics of interest to the teacher assistants.

The week has been declared "Paraedu- cators in Education Week" by Gov. Mike Leavitt. More than 4,000 paraeducators work in Utah schools.

For years, teacher assistants have tended to begin as classroom volunteers who simply have an interest in contributing to education - often because they have children of their own in the classroom.

"I started as a tutor volunteer," said Pace. "I found I enjoyed it and worked well with kids."

Between herself and Larrabee, roles are well-defined, she said. "At the beginning of the year, we decide how we will deal with our kids (all of whom are behaviorally disordered.)"

Larrabee is in charge of documentation and testing and makes curriculum decisions, while Pace helps with group activities, works with students individually on their assignments and reinforces the behavior plans the teacher develops for each child.

"I got on-the-job training and now I'm helping to train others," she said. Until recently, training has tended to be informal and unstructured.

Deanna Avis, a special educator at Millcreek Junior High School in Davis District, has been among those instrumental in making a start toward filling that void. She has presented courses via Utah's EDNET system to paraeducators all over the state, and many districts are sponsoring in-service training.

"Paraeducators are a unique crew. They love and have a real appreciation for training so they can do their jobs better," she said.

Avis also has worked with Davis District to expand instruction for paraeducators who work in the district's special education classrooms.

The training effort also got a boost when the State Office of Education made grant monies available to Alan M. Hofmeister, director of technology, USU Center for Persons with Disabilities. He was asked to develop proposed professional standards, job descriptions and role expectations. A committee is currently studying a draft proposal, Likins said.

Salt Lake Community College is also looking at the possibility of an associate degree program that would prepare paraeducators and give them an opportunity to "ladder up" to full-certification status through two more years of studies at USU, if they choose. Such a program would require the approval of the state Board of Regents.

Stevan J. Kukic, director of services for at-risk students, emphasized that the current projects relate only to paraeducators in special education, although there are aides and assistants in regular classrooms in many schools.

"What we're about is a valued, well-described role for para- educators," he said.

At this juncture, at least, that does not include formal certification as a condition for being employed as a classroom assistant, he said.