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Tops in school support: a worthy award that didn’t get much recognition

Education Minnesota has named Marcell Branch its 2016 education support professional of the year.

As a nonlicensed paraprofessional, Marcell Branch is part of an essential layer of in-school support for teachers and administrators that’s far more robust than some might realize.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

Seemingly lost in the flurry of election coverage earlier this month, Education Minnesota named Marcell Branch its 2016 education support professional of the year. The 43-year-old works as a behavior intervention specialist at the West Education Center in Intermediate District 287, in Minnetonka.

Equipped with a walkie talkie, he roams the hallways each school day, making sure his students are safe and ready to learn. And when a behavior situation erupts — as is often the case in a school serving a student population with a concentration of behavior and learning disabilities — he’s the point person on call.

As a paraprofessional, he’s part of an essential layer of nonlicensed support staff for teachers and administrators that’s far more robust than some might realize. These educators fill a variety of roles, including offering instructional assistance, working one-on-one with special-education students, serving as lunch room and playground assistants and more. Statewide, 14,479 paraprofessionals made up roughly 12 percent of the school staffing profile in 2016, according to the state Department of Education’s database.  

Most teachers understand how education support professionals contribute to student success, says Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota. But when it comes to the general public, the value of educators like Branch isn’t always well conveyed.

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“They do a lot of the work that most people don’t notice,” Specht said, noting this includes things like working closely with special-education students, making sure students get fed at school and making sure schools are clean and welcoming. “They’re really the mortar to our schools. They kind of keep everything together.”

Sandy Lewandowski, superintendent of Intermediate District 287, says paraprofessionals play an integral role in a district that serves some of the most challenged students in the state. “Our paraprofessionals cultivate positive relationships with students and keep them engaged socially and academically,” she said.

After attending the awards ceremony hosted at West Educaiton Center earlier this month, Specht confirmed how Branch fills this role.

“It’s very clear that making connections with his students and establishing relationships at his school are very important,” she said, reflecting on the event. “His students face many challenges and they have high needs. He’s able to create an atmosphere where all students can learn.”

Rising above adversity

Branch was born in Memphis, Tennessee. Growing up, he estimates that he called at least 27 different states home because his mother was never content living in one place for very long. No matter the place, he says a few aspects of his childhood were consistent: He always lived in the ghetto; he was always wearing hand-me-downs; and his mom was often working more than one job.

“It was hard for me to make friends. I never built relations with teachers, students, counselors, anybody … because I knew I wasn’t going to be in that state for very long,” he said.

Despite the lack of stability — compounded by his social anxiety and learning disabilities related to a traumatic brain injury —  he managed to graduate from high school on time. He credits his mother for instilling a strong appreciation for education in all six of her children, who have all gone on to follow their career aspirations.

For Branch, the transition from troubled youth to professional adult, however, took some time. Recounting an instance of abuse he endured at the hand of his stepfather when he was in the fifth grade, Branch says it “changed my life” for the worst. It sparked an unhealthy wave of rebellion within him that led to years of stealing, smoking marijuana, running away and drinking.

“I was self-medicating myself,” he said. “That’s why, when it comes to these kids, I understand. In some sense I’m still kinda one of these kids. I’m still trying to deal with those things.”

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In Minnesota, seeking an added sense of family and security, he ended up joining a gang. But the guilt of having committed bad gang-related deeds starting weighing on him and, 12 years in, he’d reached a turning point.

“My turning point was watching somebody get killed,” he said, noting the victim was an affiliate of the gang he belonged to. “At that point I thought about my kids.”

When he approached the gang leader about breaking ties, he was instructed to denounce himself and leave the state for five years — a rather gracious out considering that splitting from a gang often means being beaten or even killed. Turns out, that sentence was the start of an even greater life change.

In Seattle, Branch started working for a youth center, where he could relate to the young people’s struggles with homelessness and depression. “I just started clicking with these kids,” he said, noting he’d spent close to seven years of his life, total, homeless as a teen and as an adult. After about six months, a colleague approached him, encouraging him to become a certified case manager.  

He eventually moved back to Minnesota, to help care for his eldest daughter, who’d become a teen mother. But he made a habit out pursuing professional-development opportunities.

“I’m certified in 47 different things,” Branch said, noting the list ranges from the culinary arts and grant writing to being a certified gang specialist. “It’s probably stuff I’ll never use, but it felt good doing it and knowing that I have it,” he said, adding he’s currently working on his psychology degree through Kaplan University and his credentialing to become a registered behavior technician.

Leading by listening

Branch has been working for District 287 for four years. He started out as an education assistant, working one-on-one with a student whom many had trouble working with. Soon after, he joined a pilot program at the school by stepping into his current role as a behavior intervention specialist.

“I adapted to that position because, to me, behaviors is one piece of what that student is dealing with,” he said. “My best gift is to be able to tap into that. I can assess something without having to be in it for a long period of time.”

He understands that bad behaviors are often a symptom of a deeper issue, whether it be conflict at home, frustration with a learning disability or some other adverse circumstance that’s not always visually apparent. It’s something that resonates with him on a very personal level.

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He sees bits of himself in a lot of the kids he works with — many of whom have experienced the hardships of inner-city life, including the pressure to join gangs. In fact, a lot of the fights he intervenes in at school are caused by outside gang-related issues, he said, that follow students through things like social media.

“When I deal with our kids here, they claim they’re gang-affiliated,” he said. “A wannabe gang member is the most dangerous person in the world because they’re the one really trying to prove who they are, trying to move up rank, trying to impress somebody.”

When it comes to countering the pull of negative influences like this, he pours all of his energy into building strong rapport with students and staff. Admittedly, sometimes things have already escalated to the point where he has to physically restrain a student, Branch says, but that’s his least favorite part of the job.

Ideally, he says, he’ll limit the number of people involved in a behavior intervention so that the student doesn’t feel suffocated by an onslaught of adults.

“When I have to approach somebody in a conflict, I’m going to listen to them first. That’s all they really want, is to be heard,” Branch said. “In order for you to be able to talk to a student, you’ve got to be able to talk in a way where you’re talking to them, but not at them.”

Recounting a recent behavior incident, he says he was called to deal with a student who was causing a scene by trying to sleep with a blanket he’d brought into the classroom. Rather than demand the student hand over his prop, Branch says he engaged in a brief conversation with the student, explaining how it had become a distraction from learning.

“He turned his head up and said, ‘You know what, you’re the first person who actually talked to me,’ ” Branch said, adding the student then handed over the blanket on his own volition.

When Branch is not dealing with a particular incident, he’s proactively connecting with students in the hallways.

For Trent Kelly, 17, hallway conversations with Branch were key to building a mutual level of trust and respect. Having moved from Nebraska, as a freshman at West Education Center, he initially struggled with things like explosive behavior issues and work refusal. His nervousness about starting over at a new high school was compounded by the fact that we was still grieving the loss of his grandmother. Now a senior, he’s made huge gains in terms of being able to self-regulate.

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“[Branch] is the one who always helped me in this school. I would always come to him whenever I’m having a tough day. I’ve had a bunch of those,” Kelly said. “He’s caring. He doesn’t judge. He doesn’t care what you’ve done. He just wants to help you through it.”