Stepney students spell out district’s first Para Educator of the Year

Stepney Elementary School students participated in a video announcing that Heidi LaChioma is the district's first ever Para Educator of the Year.

MONROE, CT — Heidi LaChioma, a longtime para educator at Stepney Elementary School, attended a fifth grade assembly in the school cafeteria for an update on the Blankets of Hope fundraiser, when she noticed Superintendent of Schools Joseph Kobza was there too.

“We’re here for something else,” Stepney Principal Ashley Furnari announced. “Someone special is being recognized.”

A video played, in which fifth graders held up papers with letters. The first frame spelled out “Para of the Year.” There were a few paras in the room, so LaChioma said didn’t think it was her. Then students held up letters spelling, “Mrs. LaChioma.

Heidi LaChioma

“It was overwhelming,” she recalled during an interview Friday. “I was very emotional, very humbled.  The kids were cheering. They were very excited. It was sweet.”

The video showed students LaChioma works with thanking her for all she does for them.

“Everybody was so nice about it, congratulating me and saying they were happy a para was being recognized,” she said. “I think all the paras deserve this, because they work so hard.”

She said para educators have gotten more recognition over the years, because of the growing need for the ways they help children and teachers in the classroom.

This is the first time the district honored a Monroe Para Educator of the Year. Candidates were nominated and voted on my parents, children, associates and teachers.

LaChioma, who is now a candidate for the Connecticut Para Educator of the Year, will serve on a committee for Monroe Public Schools when the district votes on her successor next year.

“I always say they are the glue that hold the building together,” Furnari said of para educators. “They are amazing.”

LaChioma has been a para educator at Stepney for 20 years, starting with kindergarteners, then third graders. For the past 12 years she has worked with the fifth grade.

“I work with students who need help with their academics, depending on their needs,” she said. “I assist the teacher when needed.”

Sometimes students need a quiet environment, so LaChioma takes them out of the classroom. She reads to them and helps them to understand their exams.

LaChioma said the best part of her job is seeing how much students mature by the end of the school year, especially in fifth grade. “There’s such a change. They become more independent,” she said.

While teachers often do not see their students during recess and lunch. LaChioma said para educators stay with their students from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. She used to work with students one-on-one, but currently works with small groups.

She said paras develop strong bonds with their students.

‘Above and beyond’

“We were thrilled to learn that Heidi LaChioma was selected as the Para Educator of the Year for the Monroe Public Schools,” Furnari said. “This is very well deserved.”

Furnari said a life lesson LaChioma models each day for Stepney’s students is to treat others the way they want to be treated.

She said everyone says LaChioma goes “above and beyond,” adding she is patient with her students and they feel comfortable in her presence.

“You will often see students giving Mrs. LaChioma hugs … something that is rare in fifth grade,” Furnari said. “She always treats our students with an unconditional positive regard. She is filled with: grace, kindness, patience, positive energy and compassion. Everyone respects ‘Mrs. Lach’ and that is truly because she shows respect to all.”

Among the comments from staff members were:

“What would Stepney … and Monroe … do without Mrs. LaChioma?

“Simply put, Mrs. LaChioma is the best.”

“The students love ‘Mrs. Lach’ and tend to view her as a second mom.”

“She has been a true treasure to our school system. She loves and remembers every kid and all kids love and remember her.”

LaChioma said she loves when former students come up to her when fifth graders visit Jockey Hollow Middle School. Some parents sent her emails congratulating her on being named Para of the Year and to tell her they nominated her.

One mother who emailed told LaChioma her son, now 26, was a third grader when she worked with him. “I’m so happy. He loved you in third grade,” she wrote of LaChioma being named Para of the Year.

“That was very sweet,” LaChioma said.

LaChioma, who grew up in Orange, lives in Monroe with Fred, her husband of 29 years. The couple has an adult son. The family has been blessed with good news of late.

“My son got engaged last week. The same week I got this,” LaChioma said of her new title.

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