There’s a boy under the table in paraprofessional Sandy Slentz’s reading group. He’s reading a book like the other students in class, but he’s lying down, hidden in his comfort zone.
It’s where the Marshall Elementary second-grader retreats every day, and occasionally Slentz reaches under the table. “Is my troll still under there?” she asks. “I tickle him and he laughs.”
Marshall is a new school for the boy, who arrived with a reputation for being defiant and argumentative, labels he carried with him everywhere he went. Until he met Slentz, that is. The paraprofessional didn’t want to call him those things.
“I’ve given him love and reassurance. I’ve worked with him,” she said. “He has come out of his shell and doesn’t give me that defiant attitude. He wants to be the first one in line. Just smiling or a caring word sometimes with these kids makes their day.”
Slentz always roots for the underdog, or simply makes them feel loved and welcomed so they are ready to learn, she said. Instead of starting her workday at 9:15 a.m., as she’s scheduled, she gets to Marshall at 7:30 a.m. to volunteer with free breakfast, served to students who qualify for it. Around the breakfast table and in her K-4 reading groups, she makes connections that mean more to her than any paycheck, she said.
“There’s not one kid I don’t love. I treat every kid like my own. Some of the kids have a harder story with their lives. I tend to gravitate to them. Sometimes they need extra help and extra love. I’ve never woken up and said, ‘I don’t want to come to work.’ Even on my days off I will come, because they are special.”
Her heart is with the students, she explained. She loves seeing them blossom, and hopes all of them gain something positive from her. “It’s a sense of feeling needed.”
Successes are different for each student, Slentz said. Some move up grade levels; some develop self-esteem. For those who don’t show progress, she keeps trying, re-evaluating what they need. “A lot of it is about building these kids up when they’re younger,” she said. “They have no confidence about them… It’s the relationship part that’s key for those kids.”
The First Pride Patrol Winner
The way Slentz helps without being asked, volunteers at breakfast, and always puts students first is why she is Byron Center Public Schools’ first recipient of the Pride Patrol award, created by administrators to honor an “unsung hero” in the district. She was chosen from 40 nominations.
Physical education teacher Sara Sremba said she didn’t even hesitate when she received an e-mail requesting Pride Patrol nominations.
“Sandy was the first person who popped into my mind. She sees a need and she fills it,” Sremba said, noting that Slentz bonds with students who need it the most. “It is those kids who need the hugs. They adore her. She has a very special heart.”
Third-grade teacher Emily Caldwell also nominated Slentz. “She goes above and beyond for the kids and the staff. You don’t have to ask; she just does it.”
Caldwell explained how Slentz helped her with a student who had emotional challenges. “She could take him, walk in the hallway with him and he would come back better. She’s like the kids’ second mom, a school mom.”
Slentz, who has two teenage children with her husband, Rod, has worked as a paraprofessional at Marshall for 13 years. Before that, she was a stay-at-home mom, a human resources manager and a substitute teacher. She also tutors nine Marshall students after school.
She said she just likes to quietly do her job, giving credit to staff at every turn. The award is humbling, she said. “I like to do things behind the scenes. I don’t like to be in the front row.”
But it’s hard to go unnoticed when children flock to your side to stay for one more hug, or one more moment in reading group or in the cafeteria over breakfast.
In the words of second-grader Juliana Apo, school with Slentz is fun. “She’s really good. She’s silly, and she tells us funny stuff.”
Second-grader Reid Glupker also shared his feeling about time spent in Slentz’ classroom. “I want to stay longer,” he said.
Voices echoed around the room: “Me too!”