Soldotna Elementary School
From her resource room, Leilani runs a small reading group for fifth-graders. With her help, the students may be able to catch up with their peers; if not, other intervention options exist and Leilani is there to provide support.
Leilani has more than 25 years of classroom experience, including 17 years as a paraeducator in Soldotna. As a paraeducator, Leilani supports students with special needs in the classroom or in small group settings. Leilani counts on NEA-Alaska to ensure conditions for her and her students are not only fair, but supportive.
What she loves about her work is the connections she makes with students, watching them grow and succeed — “when the students come back after they’ve left our school for years … to say hello from the high school and tell us how college is going or to introduce us to their young family,” she explained.
Leilani currently works with fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders who have been identified as needing intervention to be successful in school. The students take classes like any other student, but have additional support from Leilani in the classroom and beyond.
Support for students isn’t only academic. Leilani makes sure her students have nutritious snacks and that they don’t miss a field trip due to lack of funds. Trips have included visiting salmon streams and participating in waterway cleanups. She wants her students to have a healthy and happy school experience, even with the additional challenges they face.
She thinks many paraeducators’ roles are frequently misunderstood. “I’m not there making copies and ‘will you go sharpen these pencils,” she said.
“Our jobs as paraeducators involve teaching our students to be more independent and important life skills, as they prepare to age out of elementary school. In a place like Alaska, we value and demand independence, and it’s my job to make sure students are equipped with the tools that need to succeed.”
A tough part about any educator’s job is the necessity to do more with less. When more students are identified as needing special assistance, schedules and class rosters are adjusted so the same number of paraeducators can serve more students.
Since joining NEA Alaska, Leilani has taken on numerous roles in support of her fellow educators, as a building and area representative, and on the board of directors. As an area representative, she has conversations with teachers and educational support professionals about union membership, which she says is a good deal no matter how you look at it. From the value of collective bargaining, to having a voice at the table, and a process to effect change, the value for educators can not be understated.
At the end of the day, Leilani wishes both educators and community members had a better understanding of the role the union plays in educator’s lives.