Making a “Paraprofessional Movement” in New York City

By Nick Juravich

Editors' Note: This is part of a roundtable series,“New Histories of Education in New York City.” For an introduction and overview, click here.

In our third post, Nick Juravich explores the social movement origins of community-based educators in our public school system. At the demand of grassroots organizers, New York City hired over 10,000 “paraprofessional educators” between 1967 and 1970, and these educators themselves led organizing drives with their communities and their union to make these positions permanent. Today, over 25,000 “paras” work in New York City schools, but the origin of these positions, and the transformative vision for them, remains largely unremembered.

UFT President Albert Shanker and Bayard Rustin, October 6, 1970 (American Federation of Teachers Papers, Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

UFT President Albert Shanker and Bayard Rustin, October 6, 1970 (American Federation of Teachers Papers, Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

In a seminal article at the start of the IS 201 campaign, scholar-activist Preston Wilcox called for “a fundamental restructuring of the relations between school and community based on a radical redistribution of power.” While it was Wilcox’s plan for community governance of IS 201 that generated the most debate, this was only one component of the restructuring he envisioned. Wilcox also reimagined the staffing of public schools, calling for the hiring of local residents as “foster teachers,” who would work in classrooms, make home visits, and build links between schools and community-based institutions.[1]

Wilcox joined a chorus of organizers and educators seeking community employment in New York City schools in the mid-1960s. These advocates hailed from a wide range of political and educational philosophies, but they all believed that hiring local residents – primarily mothers of schoolchildren – would improve classroom instruction, connect schools to their surrounding neighborhoods, and create jobs and careers in education. Their demands coalesced as New York received its first federal education funds from the newly passed Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Spurred by their organizing, the city’s Board of Education hired10,000 New Yorkers as “paraprofessional” educators to work in public schools between 1967 and 1970.

These “paras,” many of whom took part in the campaigns that secured their hiring, transformed the social geography of schooling in New York City. Amid the massive upheavals of the late 1960s, students, teachers, parents, and administrators testified to their effectiveness. Led by paras themselves, community organizations and the teachers’ union battled the Board of Education to make these positions permanent. Their struggles pushed New York City to the forefront of a national “paraprofessional movement” that brought half a million working-class educators, primarily Black and Latina women, into public schools between 1965 and 1975.[2]

Today, 1.2 million paraprofessionals work in public schools nationwide, over 25,000 in New York City alone. Despite their ubiquity, the social movement origins of these jobs, and the capacious possibilities envisioned for and by paras, are seldom recalled in educational scholarship, policy, and activism. These silences stem from policy and scholarly frameworks that obviate the past and present value of paraprofessional labor. Since the late 1970s, reformers have privileged outsider expertise and cost-benefit analyses over local knowledge and educational equity (though this is beginning to change). In the academy, this history does not fit neatly into pre-existing analytic categories. Paras simultaneously promoted desegregation (of school staff) and community control (of jobs and pedagogy). They worked in antipoverty programs that sought “maximum feasible participation” of the poor through direct employment within, not outside of, existing institutional bureaucracies. And they fought for local self-determination in schooling while unionizing with the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City teachers’ union that vociferously opposed community control.

The complexities of this history have rendered paras’ struggles invisible, but they are precisely why we must study them. Taking community-based educators seriously illuminates the history of schools activism, antipoverty policy, and public-sector unionism anew beyond the fissures of the late 1960s. It also prompts a reconsideration of these educators today, making space to see the impact of their work and, perhaps, to reimagine the intersection of labor, community, and schooling with the kind of expansive fervor paras and their allies once did.

Radical Reforms: Imagining the “Indigenous Nonprofessional” in Public Schools

The idea of hiring local residents as educators percolated through freedom struggles across the nation – Preston Wilcox cited the Child Development Group of Mississippi as a precedent for his “foster teachers” – but New York City became a center of this organizing in the early 1960s for three reasons.[3] First, the teaching corps was distinctly segregated, a problem that generated a yawning gulf between teachers, parents, and students.[4] Second, the Kennedy administration began providing federal funding to Harlem and the Lower East Side for pilot antipoverty programs, creating opportunities for experimentation.[5] Last but not least was the rising tide of grassroots schools activism in New York City, explored by Michael Glass for this roundtable.

The hiring of “teacher aides” can appear, at a glance, as a half-hearted reform in the face of bold demands. However, examining the ideas and experiments at the grassroots reveals capacious, creative activism rooted in structural analyses of inequality that ran counter to top-down behavioral approaches to education and poverty. These nascent para programs brought together activists and educators of diverse experiences and ideologies in Black, Latinx, and Asian communities. At Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, Incorporated (HARYOU), desegregation scholar Kenneth Clark partnered with teacher unionist Richard Parrish to employ Harlem parents alongside teachers as afterschool tutors. They aimed to integrate the teaching corps and improve parent-teacher understanding. In the Bronx, Puerto Rican parent organizer and United Bronx Parents founder Evelina Lopez Antonetty fought for local hiring to improve bilingual instruction, bring Puerto Rican history and culture into the curriculum, and create jobs.

Experimentation accelerated as the community control conflict sparked at IS 201 engulfed the city. Throughout 1968 and 1969, Wilcox and the IS 201 Governing Board sought funds to employ local parents who would act as community agents in classrooms and schools. Socialists Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph embraced paraprofessionalism as an integrationist, job-creating counterpoint to what they deemed the “separatist” community control movement. While these efforts were often highly localized, cross-pollination took place through the sharing of materials and ideas, driving a citywide movement.

This 52-page guide for community-based education workers was produced in Brooklyn, incorporating materials from the United Bronx Parents and IS 201, among others. (Annie Stein Papers, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

This 52-page guide for community-based education workers was produced in Brooklyn, incorporating materials from the United Bronx Parents and IS 201, among others. (Annie Stein Papers, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

The flexibility and localism of paraprofessional programs gave them strength and endeared them to a wide range of organizers. As HARYOU explained in 1964, employing “indigenous nonprofessionals” could “improve the giving of service,” create “meaningful employment for Harlem's residents” and “demand for [children] what middle-class parents demand …from schools.” [6] Resident-workers adapted schooling to local conditions – whatever those might be – while validating the lives, cultures, and labor of residents by paying wages for their knowledge. Thus envisioned, para programs asserted that working-class Black and Latinx parents deserved the same influence over schools that white, middle-class parents wielded, and took positive steps to facilitate this “redistribution of power.”

The convergence of these demands did not erase real political and strategic differences among activists –- Wilcox and Rustin agreed about little else by 1968 –- but they did highlight shared considerations. These organizers all believed schools had to be accountable to the students and parents they served. They also believed that these schools could provide more than skills to individual pupils, becoming hubs for training, employment, and collective empowerment for adults as well as children. To these ends, integration and community control could be mutually supportive strategies, part of a process of democratizing access to the resources, opportunities, and legitimacy that schools provided. Finally, activists advanced structural critiques of poverty, seeking public-sector job creation to break occupational segregation and decouple survival from the market in a deindustrializing city.

"Making Themselves Essential” and Making Their Jobs Permanent

As over a decade of scholarship has demonstrated, grassroots activists did remarkable things within the War on Poverty. What made, and makes, paraprofessional programs unique was their staying power, predicated on three factors. First was their location inside the schools bureaucracy, which gave a range of potential allies a stake in these programs. Second, these alliances were forged by paras themselves, who “made themselves essential” in classrooms and communities. Finally, unionization provided the mechanism by which paraprofessional positions transitioned (partially) from War on Poverty experiments to permanent positions.

Like so many Great Society endeavors, early para programs were long on ideas and short on specifics, and it fell to community-based educators themselves to realize these visions. Who were they? A 1971 study offered a statistical overview: 93% of paras were women, and 80% were mothers. 50% were African American, 40% were Spanish-surnamed, and 80% lived within 10 blocks of the school where they worked. Federal regulations required that paras be on or eligible for public assistance, demonstrate a fifth-grade reading level, and be hired either at the recommendation of the school principal or the local community action program.[7]

As a result, many paraprofessional educators were experienced “activist mothers.” [8] One educator marveled that paras were “alert and active in community affairs … many PTA officers, den mothers, community council members, church volunteer workers … with a rich life-knowledge and wisdom about the ways of their world.” [9] Teachers, many of whom initially feared paras would act as spies or scabs, responded enthusiastically when their union surveyed them in 1968, reporting that paras improved their teaching and communication with students and parents.[10] As one Bronx activist explained, paras “made themselves essential.”[11]

The local nature of paraprofessional labor makes it difficult to generalize, but paras’ success relied on their effectiveness in both classrooms and communities. In classrooms, paras improved pedagogy and curriculum while providing emotional support and relatable role models to children. In Harlem, Azalee Evans was one of many paras who designed her school’s first African-American history curriculum.[12] Other interventions were more intimate; in the Bronx, para Oneida Davis took pride in being a “role model” to students, but also played the part of “mom to all these kids,” allowing students to hug her in the hallways. In communities, paras became vital conduits for parents. Describing herself as “a liaison between the school and the community, Chinese-American para Marian Thom and her bilingual peers doubled attendance at parent teacher conferences by translating to Spanish and Chinese-speaking parents on the Lower East Side.[13] Across the city, paraprofessionals improved instruction and communication. Their labor offered a powerful rebuke to the popular “culture of poverty” thesis and its contention that “matriarchal” non-white families generated pathology.[14]

Paraprofessional Doris Hunter teaches about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at PS 25 in Brooklyn in 1970 (UFT Hans Weissenstein Negatives Collection, Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University)

Paraprofessional Doris Hunter teaches about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at PS 25 in Brooklyn in 1970 (UFT Hans Weissenstein Negatives Collection, Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University)

Despite their effectiveness, paraprofessional educators were paid near-minimum wages in the late 1960s. The Board of Education justified this paltry remuneration by claiming that their work was “temporary.” In response, paras embarked on unionization campaign to make their work permanent. Coming on the heels of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville conflict in the spring of 1969, this organizing drive has divided historians of education. The union and its allies describe the process as a triumph, led from the top down by UFT President Albert Shanker, while critical appraisals argue that this was co-optation that left paraprofessionals subordinate within the union and schools.[15] Either suggests an all-too-familiar endpoint for activism around 1970, and presumes these activist mothers to be either grateful supplicants or unwitting dupes.

Listening to the voices of paras themselves reframes the story.[16] 3,800 paras voted in 1969 to join the UFT, in a vote that was both practical and aspirational. Union flyers featured paras who hoped to become teachers, while the New York Amsterdam News quoted paras who said “I'm going to the highest bidder,” and “We're aware that the UFT is only using us to gain more power and get on the good side of the parents.” [17] If this was co-optation, paras were clear-eyed about it. Moreover, the vote did not guarantee a contract; the Board of Education dared the union to strike, believing that neither communities nor the white, middle-class UFT rank-and-file would support paras. While the union conducted “the largest internal education drive in its history,” paras convinced their communities to rally for them. They attended community meetings, wrote editorials, talked to parents, and won support from the press, including the Amsterdam News, El Diario, and The New York Post. This combination of public and union support brought the Board to the bargaining table, producing a landmark contract in August of 1970. Gains included a 140% wage increase, health care, and the creation of a career ladder program that allowed thousands of paras to train as teachers in August of 1970.

UFT Election Materials, June 1969, featuring the voices of paraprofessional educators seeking job security, decent wages, and opportunity to become teachers through the UFT.  (UFT Collection, Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, NYU)

UFT Election Materials, June 1969, featuring the voices of paraprofessional educators seeking job security, decent wages, and opportunity to become teachers through the UFT.

(UFT Collection, Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, NYU)

From the para perspective, unionization was not was not an end but a beginning, not a wholesale endorsement of the UFT’s anti-community-control position but a means to continue their work. In the decade that followed, some paraprofessional educators became union leaders, crisscrossing the country to bring the benefits of unionization to nearly 50,000 paras who joined the AFT. Others joined opposition caucuses within the UFT, challenging the leadership on a wide range of issues. Many paras used their new stability to take on roles as community leaders, or to further their educations through the career ladder program, which helped over 2,000 paras become classroom teachers by the early 1980s.

The Paraprofessional Movement in the Age of Reform

Paraprofessional jobs were the creation of, and a victory for, midcentury freedom struggles, despite the marginalization of paraprofessional educators in many – though not all – school contexts today. The eclipse of this transformative vision for paraprofessionalism began in 1975, when the city’s fiscal crisis led to 4,000 paraprofessional layoffs and wiped out the CUNY-based career ladder program. Political attacks on community-run programs and public sector unions, led by Mayor Ed Koch from 1977 onward, doubly affected paraprofessional educators, who found themselves sidelined within new accountability rubrics while their longtime allies, themselves under attack, provided limited support. The flexibility and localism that gave paraprofessional programs their strength did not translate to one-size-fits-all assessments, nor did it allow for concerted unity in the face of sustained opposition. In the language of the 1980s, Koch attacked paraprofessional work as make-work for welfare mothers, not real educative labor. Though New York’s paras preserved their contract against Koch’s assaults, his words proved prophetic; nationalized by Ronald Reagan, nearly four decades of educational reforms have curtailed the possibilities for community-based educational workers.

November 1978 Issue of “Teacher Action,” the newsletter of the left-leaning Teacher Action Caucus (TAC) of the UFT, urging the UFT to take a stronger stand on layoffs. (Anne Fillardo Collection, Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, NYU)

November 1978 Issue of “Teacher Action,” the newsletter of the left-leaning Teacher Action Caucus (TAC) of the UFT, urging the UFT to take a stronger stand on layoffs. (Anne Fillardo Collection, Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, NYU)

Nonetheless, this story of working-class women educators creating jobs, making themselves essential in these roles, and using collective bargaining to preserve and expand a War on Poverty program that persists to this day deserves a re-examination. For historians, the paraprofessional experience demands critical reappraisals of the narratives of fracture that still predominate in post-1965 movement historiography, and reveals a lesser-studied impact of these movements on job creation, public-sector union growth, and educational practices.

In studying this history, we should not limit the possibilities of a transformative, capacious vision of community-based education to the past. I came to this project after working in afterschool health and fitness programming, where the labor of paraprofessional educators at the margin between school and community was essential, if rarely recognized. Recent organizing by progressive unionists in Chicago, St. Paul, Seattle, and San Francisco has deliberately connected with and empowered paraprofessionals in the building of school-community coalitions. At home, the UFT has announced new career and leadership opportunities for paraprofessionals. Grassroots activism continues to infuse this work with possibility, from the Grow Your Own Teachers program in Chicago to Bilingual Pupil Services in New York.[18]

Questions abound when we take paraprofessional educators and their histories seriously. How might alternative paths to teaching empower local residents as well as elite outsiders? How might parents and teachers find common ground across divides of race, class, and metropolitan geography? What might the presence of recognizable, accessible community members in schools mean for children, provided those who do this work are valued and supported in the eyes of students and teachers? The midcentury “paraprofessional movement” did not answer these questions, and it is clear that simply creating positions in schools and unions does not necessarily create radical transformations. Grassroots organizers in New York City led a local and national movement to create and make permanent these positions; empowering these educators in schools and realizing their potential remains an ongoing project.

Nick Juravich is a PhD candidate at Columbia University, and Associate Editor of Gotham.

[1] Preston R. Wilcox, “The Controversy over I.S. 201: One View and a Proposal” Urban Review (July, 1966).

[2] Alan Gartner and Frank Riessman, “The Paraprofessional Movement in Perspective,” The Personnel and Guidance Journal 53, no. 4 (December 1, 1974).

[3] For a penetrating analysis of the ways that seemingly reformist parent-training programs in the context of Project Head Start yielded the potential for “full freedom” and the redistribution of power, see Crystal R. Sanders, A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi’s Black Freedom Struggle (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016). On Head Start’s impact on employment opportunities, see also. Gretchen Aguiar, “Head Start: A History of Implementation” (Ph.D. Diss, University of Pennsylvania, 2012).

[4] For a discussion of the segregation of New York teachers, who were 91% white teaching a 60% non-white student body in 1968, see Christina Collins, Ethnically Qualified’’: Race, Merit, and the Selection of Urban Teachers, 1920 - 1980 (New York City: Teachers College Press, 2011).

[5] On the War on Poverty in New York City, see Noel A. Cazenave, Impossible Democracy : The Unlikely Success of the War on Poverty Community Action Programs (Albany : State University of New York Press, 2007.); Tamar W. Carroll, Mobilizing New York: AIDS, Antipoverty, and Feminist Activism (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015); Michael Woodsworth, The Battle for Bed-Stuy: The Long War on Poverty in New York City. Carroll and Woodsworth, in particular, focus on the foundational work of women activists, including paraprofessional social workers and school liaisons in antipoverty programs.

[6] Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, Inc. Youth in the Ghetto: A Study of the Consequences of Powerlessness and a Blueprint for Change (New York, 1964). On the strategic deployment of “indigenous” as a category for organization and analysis in Black communities in the 1960s and 1970s, see Russell Rickford, We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2016) and in a contemporary context, Christopher Emdin, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the rest of y'all, too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016).

[7] Henry M Brickell et al., An in-Depth Study of Paraprofessionals in District Decentralized ESEA Title I : And New York State Urban Education Projects in the New York City Schools (New York: Institute for Educational Development, 1971).

[8] The formulation “activist mother” comes from Nancy A. Naples, Grassroots Warriors: Activist Mothering, Community Work, and the War on Poverty, (New York: Routledge, 1998). Naples's formulation draws heavily on the work of Patricia Hill Collins in Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment (London: Routledge, 2000), who in turns invokes an earlier generation of Black feminist writers, including bell hooks, Angela Davis, and Alice Walker. New bottom-up histories of the War on Poverty make productive use of this analytic. See, among others Annelise Orleck and Lisa Gayle Hazirjian, eds., The War on Poverty: A New Grassroots History, 1964-1980 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011), especially Part II, “Poor Mothers and the War on Poverty.”

[9] Anne Cronin quoted in “1968 Progress Report” Archives of the Women’s Talent Corps, Folder 15, MCNY.

[10] Gladys Roth, “Auxiliary Educational Assistants in New York City Schools” Internal Report, United Federation of Teachers, May 20, 1968, UFT Records, Box 80, Folder 11.

[11] Aurelia Greene, Interview with the Author, July 24, 2014.

[12] Nick Juravich, “Community in the Classroom: Parent Teacher Teams in Harlem” Exhibit Under Review, Educating Harlem Project, Teachers College, Columbia University.

[13] Marian Thom, Interview with the Author, September 10, 2013.

[14] The most (in)famous statement of the “culture of poverty” thesis in the Great Society context is Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s The Negro Family: A Case for National Action (Washington, DC: Department of Labor, 1965). On the rejection of the report by woman activists of color, see also Adina Back, “'Parent Power” in Orleck and Hazirjian.

[15] For a sophisticated statement of the UFT position, see Richard D. Kahlenberg, Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007). For critiques, see Daniel Perlstein, Justice, Justice: School Politics and the Eclipse of Liberalism (New York: Peter Lang, 2004) and Sonia Song-Ha Lee, Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement : Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in New York City (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2014), as well as quotations in Jerald E. Podair, The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).

[16] For more on the unionization of paraprofessional educators, see Nick Juravich, “Paraprofessional Educators and Labor-Community Coalitions, Past and Present” Labor Online, February 24, 2015.

[17] Flyer, June 1969. UFT Records, Box 155, Folder 3; “Unions fight to enlist NY's teacher aides” December 27, 1969, Baltimore Afro-American.

[18] On the origins of the Grow Your Own Teachers Program, and for an excellent look at a transformational vision of community-based education today, see Soo Hong, A Cord of Three Strands: A New Approach to Parent Engagement in Schools (Cambridge: Harvard Education Press, 2011).