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At Franklin, Paraprofessional Miss Lydia is an Indispensable Part of the Educational Team

Parapro Lydia Portillos takes a photo with a student in a wheelchair This week, the Pueblo School District 60 Board of Education read into the record a resolution honoring the efforts of the district’s paraprofessionals.

The honor coincides with April 1’s designation as National Paraprofessional Appreciation Day.

The board’s resolution praises paraprofessionals for providing a critical service, daily, to children and teachers, with “great skill, compassion, humor and sensitivity.”

Although technically classified as “support staff,” classroom paraprofessionals are essential partners in the educational process, working side-by-side with teachers to assist special-needs students – many facing significant physical and other challenges – to thrive and grow.

Outside of the classroom and school building, this difficult and taxing work is often overlooked and underpraised. But for building leaders and educators, paraprofessionals are truly the “unsung heroes” whose selfless commitment is an indispensable part of education.

At Franklin School of Innovation, which educates a number of medically fragile young scholars, a team of 7 parapros provides this essential service to those Bobcats under their watch.

“They are definitely an important part of our staff,” said Franklin Principal Dana DiTomaso-Junkman said. “And really, we couldn’t do our job without them because they support the kids with the highest needs. Sometimes, it could be a physical disability or a learning disability. At Franklin, every kid is an individual, so our paraprofessionals work with every kid on their individual needs.

“They really are unsung heroes. They work with kids who need them the most and we need them. They’re just so, so important.”

For the past 11 years, Lydia Portillos has dedicated her life to making the educational journey easier to navigate for those Bobcats for whom the ability to walk, talk and even write is a luxury they’ve never known.

At Franklin, she is entrusted with the care of third-grader Chayse, a sharp-minded young man who refuses to let cerebral palsy prevent him from enjoying all the perks that come with being a Bobcat. 

“She is an amazing paraprofessional,” Principal DiTomaso-Junkman said of the beloved woman known to the school community as “Miss Lydia.” 

“All she needs is a set of wings: she’s very kind, very caring and very gentle. Although she works with everybody, the kids Miss Lydia supports are those with physical disabilities, like those in wheelchairs. That’s her specialty.”

Miss Lydia has been a beacon of hope and joy at Franklin for her entire paraprofessional career. Prior to joining the Bobcat team, she was a charter school reading tutor. 

“My mom recommended it to me,” said Miss Lydia of the paraprofessional field. “She said I had the right type of demeanor to work with special needs children, and that I would be good with them.  And when she said that, I said, “Really, Mom?’ And she said, ‘Try it.’

“And I did, and Mom was right.”

For the patient, empathetic and nurturing Miss Lydia, paraprofessionalism offers the coveted opportunity to make a direct impact on those students, from Kindergarten through the fifth grade, beset with obstacles through no choice of their own. 

“I’ve always worked with severe-need kids,” she explained. “Children who have to be fed with tubes, others who have seizures: all types of disabilities that require careful monitoring at all times.”

This school year, Chayse is Miss Lydia’s lone charge. 

“He’s brilliant, just smart: very inquisitive with his mind,” Miss Lydia explained. “He can talk like an adult, reads at a very high level, and always brings a positive attitude wherever he goes. He always makes people laugh.”

As the boy is presently unable to write, it’s Miss Lydia who serves as his scribe, among her many other responsibilities.

“He would love to write, and someday, that is his dream,” Miss Lydia promises. “But for right now, I’m a scribe for him. He listens well and wants to learn. If that boy could do what he wanted to do, he’d be in college tomorrow.” 

Acknowledging that the important work she does is, for the most, behind-the-scenes as far as the general public is concerned, Miss Lydia said she is fine with that.

“We’re upfront where it matters most: with the kids,” she said. “We’re in the front of the scenes with our children. We try to make them feel at home and most importantly, keep them safe. That’s our Number One duty. 

“I think any paras that I work with would be willing to do anything to keep a kid safe. Paraprofessionals don’t do this for the recognition. If anyone is blessed, it’s us by the children, not them by us.” 

For Miss Lydia, the most difficult part of the job is seeing the Bobcats she has shadowed for years move on to middle school. 

“It’s just so hard to let go of them, even though we’ve done everything we can to prepare them for that next level of education,” she offered.

Fortunately, there are a multitude of joyous and celebratory moments in between to mitigate the hurt that comes with separation.

“For me, the happiest time is when the kids are laughing,” Miss Lydia said. “Deep down in the stomach: laughing delightfully. It’s just so neat to see them happy.”

With Chayse, there are plenty of high-spirited memories being made.

“Just the other day, he told me, ‘Miss Lydia, you are an inspiration to me,’” she said. “And I told him, ‘You are an inspiration to me.’ These kids have such hardships, and struggle with their disabilities – wanting to do something they know they can’t possibly do – but they are happy children. 

“Their little hearts are happy and they are caring with one another.”

Any breakthrough or victory, no matter how small, is a cause for celebration.

“They try so hard,” Miss Lydia said of special needs students. “And even if they make the smallest steps, it’s a big deal to us: just to see them grow. When you work with them, you get to know them: how they feel, what they think, what they like and don’t like, what makes them work and what challenges they like. 

“We see the parts that give them inspiration, and we build the curriculum around that.”

There are times when the enormity of the hardships and struggles many special needs students are dealing with pull at the heartstrings of even the most seasoned paraprofessionals. In those moments, Miss Lydia focuses on the crucial task at hand.

“You know that you just have to make it through anything a child goes through,” she explained. “Sure, we feel saddened in our hearts for them, but we make it up in different ways, like bringing more joy to them and writing little notes to bring the parents encouragement.

“But we can’t take the sadness home with us. We have to leave it here. Then, we go home to our families and come back the next day and take whatever comes our way. All we can do is our very best for them, every day, and hope for the best for them.”

Although Miss Lydia’s unparalleled commitment to young Chayse may not be well known outside of Franklin, her compassionate concern is common knowledge within the Bobcat family. 

“Miss Lydia is a paraprofessional,” said Chayse, who has his sights set on a career as an astronaut. “She helps me: she’s my aid, she takes care of me at the school. And I really like her, because she makes my life easier.

“Any day without Miss Lydia would be really sad and really heartbreaking.”