Ohio taps Toledo para for new RISE Award

When Congress passed a law in 2019 to honor outstanding preK-12 paraprofessionals and school-related personnel at the national level, it was only a matter of time before a PSRP from our union would rise to the top.

a black woman, Cerssandra McPherson, holds her award and smiles
For the first Recognizing Inspiring School Employees (RISE) Award, to be announced by the U.S. Department of Education this spring, Ohio has nominated a high school paraprofessional from Toledo, Cerssandra McPherson.

Backed by the Ohio Federation of Teachers and selected by the governor, McPherson has a public education career spanning more than three decades, from a recess aide and special education paraprofessional to a member of the Toledo City Council, appointed last fall.

McPherson’s nomination notes that she is flexible and dependable, ready to take on any task. She goes above and beyond what is asked of her, supporting other paraprofessionals in her school and district by providing professional development. She also is an AFT national trainer in math, traveling with a team in past years to share extensive training with other paras across the country.

Her tireless work on behalf of the union—as a reliable member of its bargaining team, grievance staff and executive board—and her many instances of taking students under her wing and helping them thrive are hallmarks of McPherson’s dedication.

She is an active member of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the NAACP and the Toledo chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club, which devotes itself to community service. She serves as a trustee for her church and its ministry in Northwest Ohio. She also is a member of her local Democratic Women’s Club.

Winning the statewide RISE Award and contending for the national honor took McPherson by surprise: “I didn’t know what to think at first, when they called me to submit my information for the award. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s so nice.’ And then when the Ohio Federation of Teachers called me and said, ‘You’re the nominee, but with COVID we can’t do a big shindig in Columbus,’ I was like, ‘What?’ The governor sent me a plaque. And then it was in the newspaper. It was a surprise, to be honest.”

Giving her time

McPherson has always been an activist in Toledo’s African American community, in her church and in the union, says Kris Schwarzkopf, head of TFT’s paraprofessional unit.

a black woman, Cerssandra McPherson, stands with one of her students and smiles
From left, paraprofessional Cerssandra McPherson, teacher Latonia Reid, substitute teacher Jerry Davis and proud graduate Xavier Thompson.

“Whenever we have an election, local or national, walks or phone banks, whatever we do, she’s there,” Schwarzkopf says. “She gives up a Saturday, and she’s there. For school levies, we knocked on doors, both teachers and paras. Sandra was there. And the last couple of levies, we did get to pass. For bus trips to the capital, we’ll leave on a Friday and come back Sunday. When AFT President Randi Weingarten joined us in protests at the Capitol, Sandra was there. Anything we ask, she finds the time to do it.”

Schwarzkopf frets a bit because McPherson also is the caregiver for her 95-year-old mom. “I hope Sandra takes care of herself because she’s taking care of her mom,” she says, “but she’s very careful about maintaining COVID precautions. She comes into the office after most staff have left. She has a heart of gold. She’s very deserving of the RISE Award.”

Herself a powerhouse in Ohio politics, a mobilizer in every election season and a winner of AFT PSRP’s highest award, the Albert Shanker Pioneer Award, Schwarzkopf gives a shout-out to TFT President Kevin Dalton for advancing McPherson’s nomination and for protecting all Toledo educators against furloughs and layoffs during the pandemic.

Toledo teachers appreciate McPherson, too. Latonia Reid, her partner at Scott High School, describes her in the nomination as a “jack of all trades,” and as a “beautiful, spirited woman who cares about others, sometimes forgetting about herself.” The students she works with adore her, going to McPherson for academic assistance, moral support and mentoring. You only need to know her motto—what she calls the “three E’s”—to understand this: “encourage, equip and empower.”

“Cerssandra gives herself wholly to whatever she is doing,” says OFT President Melissa Cropper. “As a paraprofessional, she has earned the respect of the teachers and the love of the students she supports. She’s also an integral part of her church community and the wider community. She truly does rise to the top in every way.”

To find out more about the RISE Award, see the AFT resolution supporting it and a short backgrounder on the award.

[Annette Licitra/photos courtesy Cerssandra McPherson]