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Paraprofessional shines in advocating for students, is named Arc Educator of the Year

June 26, 2024


Student success, in every aspect, is a top priority for Tracy Claassen.

As a paraprofessional skills trainer in Grand Island Public Schools’ Project SEARCH program, Claassen works with students to further develop life and job skills. No matter how small the accomplishment or growth, Claassen celebrates students.

Project SEARCH is a one-year school-to-work program that takes place entirely at CHI Health St. Francis. Project SEARCH serves students with disabilities who are in the last year of their educational program. Students interview and apply to be part of the program. Project SEARCH interns complete job rotations throughout the year to gain a variety of job experiences. 

Claassen has been with GIPS for 24 years, and with the Project SEARCH program for 5 years. Her work in supporting and caring for students over the years earned her recognition as the 2024 Educator of the Year from the Arc of Central Nebraska earlier this year.

“I feel so honored to receive this award because it's not too often that a paraprofessional is recognized as an educator. We are behind the scenes people who support the classroom teacher,” Claassen said. “I personally know all the previous winners and they are pretty high caliber educators. To be put in the same category as them is the highest honor I think a person can get.”

Claassen mentioned that all of the previous winners and many mentors, including her current Project SEARCH teacher Michella Honas, have poured into her over the past 24 years. 

“They have taught me everything they know from how to manage behaviors, create visuals for students who have difficulty reading or talking,” Claassen mentioned. 

“They showed me what good leadership looks like and how to celebrate all accomplishments in students' academic growth – no matter the size.”

Tracy Claassen talks to a teacher at a Project SEARCH event.

Her work with Project SEARCH interns have fueled her passion for education. In the program, Claassen and Honas give students two work rotations at CHI Health St. Francis hospital to help sharpen their work skills. Interns gain experience in different departments, such as environmental services, the lab, nutrition services, etc.

“These students want to learn and be successful in a work environment,” Claassen said. “We work on dressing properly for the job, good hygiene, creating good stamina and speed, interview skills, creating resumes and good social skills. We take the time to get to know their strengths and weaknesses and help them overcome their challenges so they can become mature young adults ready to conquer the world.” 

Michella and Tracy posing with a graduate from the Project SEARCH program in 2024.

On the students’ third rotation, they are placed in a community business where they would like to work. Claassen and Honas coach the Project SEARCH interns on the job, then help them apply with the goal of getting hired on as an employee. 

“Tracy is instrumental in the Project SEARCH program,” Honas, Project SEARCH Instructor and Coordinator said.

Honas mentioned that Claassen does whatever it takes to help her students, even if it means putting in extra hours.

“She is appreciated for her creativity in making unique accommodations for the interns to be successful on the job. Tracy is a vital part of Project SEARCH,” Honas said.

Tracy Claassen and Michella Honas.

Each year, Claassen is able to watch her Project SEARCH students grow and make progress. A particular success stood out for her this year.

“We had a young lady this year that wanted to be a CNA,” Claassen explained. “So we went to class with her, read the chapters, tests and quizzes to her. We studied on the days she didn't have classes, and practiced all the skills with her to help her memorize all the 42 skills that were required to pass state testing.” 

Claassen and Honas walked alongside the student to support her goals. The day the student took her state test, she called her teachers to let them know the results.

“She passed on the first try – Michella and I jumped up and down screaming with excitement,” Claassen said.

It was then that Claassen knew she was making a difference. All of her hard work in supporting students so they could succeed came to fruition in this example.

 “That was one of my proudest moments in my career,” Claassen declared.

“I just love helping students grow and seeing them succeed no matter how small the success,” Claassen remarked. “ It just brings me joy to know I had a part in their journey.”