West Homer staff member receives Paraeducator of the Year Award

West Homer staff member Amy Russell received the State of Alaska Special Education Paraeducator of the Year Award for 2023 school year by the Governor’s Council on Disabilities and Special Education. This year’s awards will be presented at the Alaska State Special Education Conference (ASSEC) awards breakfast on Feb. 7 at the Hilton Hotel in Anchorage.

The Council has given the Inclusive Practice Award for the last 18 years to honor outstanding educators who work to ensure students with disabilities have the opportunity for inclusive education with their peers as part of the general education curriculum and school community, according to the council website.

An additional award is given specifically to a special education paraeducator who exemplifies best practices in supporting students in classrooms, this is what Russell is awarded for.

Russell graduated from Alaska Pacific University with a bachelor’s degree in education and has worked at the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District as a special education paraprofessional since 2011. Prior to this position she was a parent volunteer and has also worked in the Behavioral Health Center in Homer.

“I work really hard and try to serve these kids as best as I can every day. It’s really important to me,” she said in an interview on Friday. “I go into six different classrooms throughout the day to provide support for our students.”

Eric Waltenbaugh, principal of West Homer Elementary, nominated Russell for the award.

“Because of her strong relationships with students, years of experience in education, and her perseverance in meeting all students where they are at, she knows just exactly how to adapt to the personalized needs of individual learners,” Waltenbaugh said in an email.

Waltenbaugh said Russell will consistently join extracurriculars from basketball to soccer to chess as an additional coach so that students with disabilities have the opportunity to participate successfully.

“When she is involved in these programs, there are generally a large number of students with special needs who join because she has such strong relationships with the students she works with,” he said.

“I like to keep that gym full and the kids moving,” Russell said. “These kids just make me laugh and I feel like I can make a big impact on them. I’m sticking around!”

“My job is to give students the academic, social and emotion support they need. I provide direction and guidance to them to ensure they develop into upstanding citizens in the classroom and beyond,” Russell said via email.

Russell is the only person in the state receiving this award and points out that “it’s really impressive that the Council is recognizing the role of support staff.”

Emilie Springer can be reached at emilie.springer@homernews.com.