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'A huge honor': Unit 5 paraprofessional is one of 2 Illinoisans nominated for national education award

A group of smiling adults and children huddle around a kid-height, U-shaped table. A small child with pigtails in the center of the image raises her hands with joy. The group is surrounded by a preschool classroom that includes colorful posters, balls and storage bins.
courtesy of Susan Naber
Paraprofessional Susan Naber, fifth from left in pink and black, works in a special education pre-kindergarten classroom at Brigham Early Learning Center in Bloomington. She was recently nominated for a national award honoring school support staff.

For nearly a decade, Susan Naber has supported the learning of Unit 5’s tiniest students. Naber is a paraprofessional at Brigham Early Learning Center, a south Bloomington pre-kindergarten school for at-risk youth.

“The teacher is the person who runs the program, puts the class together, has the lesson plans and is ultimately responsible for the child’s learning,” Naber said. “The paraprofessional assists that teacher and assists students in learning.”

Naber works in a special education classroom, supporting students with profound physical and cognitive disabilities. She is one of four paraprofessionals in a classroom with a certified teacher and up to eight students. In addition to facilitating academic goals, Naber and her colleagues assist with students’ functional and social-emotional skills, helping to prepare pre-K students for elementary school and beyond.

“This is their first experience in a school setting when they’re 3, 4 and 5,” Naber said, “so we’re really setting them up to be successful for the rest of their school time.”

A young child stands next to a seated teacher, who assists the child with pointing at a book. Both are smiling, engrossed in their task.
courtesy of Susan Naber
Unit 5 paraprofessional Susan Naber, pictured with a student, has advocated for children with disabilities to attend gymnastics lessons, which helps their gross motor skills. She has worked at Brigham Early Learning Center for nearly 10 years.

Naber’s work was recently recognized by the Illinois State Board of Education. The classroom teacher she works with, Melissa Adams-McCarthy, nominated her as a Those Who Excel honoree — an award Naber received in 2022. In November, Gov. JB Pritzker selected Naber and Johnyell Owens of New Trier High School in Chicago’s north suburbs as one of two Illinoisans nominated for the U.S. Department of Education’s RISE Award: Recognizing Inspiring School Employees.

“It’s a huge honor,” said Naber. “It’s just awesome to be recognized for the work that we do. I think sometimes paraprofessionals don’t get the recognition that they need. I know they don’t get the pay they need. They don’t get the support sometimes they need in the classroom.”

This spring, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona will select one person from the list of nominees for the nationwide prize.

“Even though I may not win, I just hope the recognition helps the paraprofessional field,” Naber said. “Teachers could not do the jobs that they do without paraprofessionals.”

Prior to her role at Brigham Early Learning, Naber spent three decades in the gymnastics field and previously owned a gym in Bloomington. After earning an associate's degree in early learning at Heartland Community College, she moved from the gym into the classroom.

Naber uses her sports background to students’ advantage, encouraging them to take gymnastics lessons and has assisted coaches as a paraprofessional for children with disabilities in group classes.

“In a gymnastics setting where the kids are doing little obstacle courses and walking on balance beams — that really helps with their gross motor development,” she said. “We also incorporate that in our classroom. We have a little bar, we have a trampoline, we use balance beams — I take what I have done for 38 years and bring it into the classroom to help with their gross motor development.”

The pandemic posed challenges for all teachers, paraprofessionals and school-aged children. Naber said more than two years at home was especially difficult for early learners.

“I think our teachers here at Brigham did a marvelous job with what was available to them,” she said, “and I think the kids learned as much as they could through that process. What I have noticed since we’ve come back though is children who are not socially ready to be with other children because they were so isolated.”

First and foremost, Naber is an advocate. She advocates for students and families, for teachers, and on behalf of her colleagues. And she will soon act as bargaining chair on behalf of the Unit Five Support Professionals Association, the union representing school staff, including paraprofessionals.

Naber said it will be an uphill battle at the negotiating table if a tax increase referendum aimed at closing funding gaps in Unit 5 fails a second time in April. But morale remains high.

“We are so busy during the day that we don’t really have time to think about the outside world and what happens,” she said.

Still, Naber said it is critical to educate the public about the goals of the referendum and how it may affect schools and children.

“I’m really hoping that the citizens of Normal who can vote for this will think about the students and the staff that teach their children,” she said, “so that when we do go to bargain in late spring or early summer, we have something to bargain with.”

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Lauren Warnecke is a part-time reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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